It was late August in Marshall County, 1979. Deputy sheriff Val Johnson was on patrol in his Ford LTD at 1:30 a.m., heading out on County Road 5. He got about 10 miles away from Stephen when he saw a light through the driver’s side window.
It was an 8- to 12-inch ball of light floating about three-and-a-half feet off the ground, zooming along the road. Johnson thought it had to be a truck with a busted headlight. But it was too bright for that. Whatever it was, Johnson decided to follow it.
He sped up to 55 mph, following the glowing orb down a dark stretch of country road. He’s not certain what happened next. One second the light was dead ahead, and the next it was upon him, painfully bright. All he remembers is the sound of glass breaking and the brakes seizing up.
He woke up 39 minutes later with his head on the steering wheel. He raised it to take in a sideways view of the world. His car was sitting on its side, halfway off the road in the opposite lane. His head hurt. His eyes hurt. But he managed to radio headquarters.
When they asked what was wrong, he told them he honestly didn’t know. All he knew was that something hit his car.
Rescuers found his car in a sorry state. The windshield was shattered, and there was a hefty dent in the hood. The antennae were folded neatly backward, with all the desiccated corpses of careless insects still attached. One of the headlights was busted.
An ambulance transported Johnson to a Warren hospital. Doctors determined he’d sustained eye burns, the kind welders get from staring at the sparks shooting off their instruments. He was treated and released.
He told Sheriff Dennis Brekke what he saw. He had no explanation for it. During questioning, they noticed his watch was 14 minutes behind. This was strange for Johnson. He had always been fastidious about syncing his watch and his car clock with headquarters when he started his shifts. They also discovered the clock in his car was 14 minutes slow.
The department was dumbfounded. They had no idea how any of this could be explained. That’s when Brekke called the Center for UFO Studies in Illinois. UFO investigator Allan Hendry turned up in Warren the next day.
Hendry was an astronomer, ufologist and advocate for the “scientific study of UFOs.” His book, "The UFO Handbook: A Guide to Investigating, Evaluating, and Reporting UFO Sightings" was all about being comprehensive and critical of supposed encounters, and separating tricks of the mind from the truly unexplained. Hendry studied the car and the circumstances. He came to only one conclusion: whatever happened, this wasn’t a hoax.
Hendry was the first of many experts to examine the wreck. A glass expert determined the fractures in the outside of the windshield had three origins -- three objects had likely hit the windshield within milliseconds of each other. There was no conclusion as to what these objects were.
An investigator from Honeywell studied the antennae. His best guess was that they had been bent by a highly imposed blast of air -- but he had no idea what could had caused such a thing. The presence of bugs on the antennae indicated that it probably hadn’t been bent back by hand.
Theories started to bounce. Maybe it was ball lightning: an atmospheric quirk usually associated with thunderstorms. But the night had been clear. A fallen piece of equipment from a nearby Air Force base? Maybe, but there would have been debris.
After the department released the story of Johnson’s mystery encounter, the AP picked it up, and the department phone was suddenly ringing around the clock. People were calling from all over the world, dying to know more. Johnson and his family were inundated in calls from the press, and he appeared on Good Morning America. But as time went on, other headlines crowded the front page and the event fell into relative obscurity.
Then along came the internet.
“There’s probably more interest in [Johnson] now than there was 20 years ago,” says Kent Broten, president of the Marshall County Historical Society. The Marshall County Museum still has Johnson’s car, and it’s one of their most popular exhibits. Every year they meet people who show up just to see the car in person. The History Channel and the Travel Channel stop by every now and then to do spooky specials on the small-town UFO encounter.
Broten has no idea what happened that night, and he knows pretty much everything there is to know about the Val Johnson Incident, as it came to be known.
“To this day, it’s unsolved,” he says.