Marshall County UFO: Sheriff Val Johnson's Cracked Windscreen, Temporary Blindness, And Loss Of Time
A UFO sighting by a Marshall County police officer in 1979 resulted in a smashed windscreen, temporary blindness, and a loss of time. An unexplained encounter with an unidentified flying object and the investigation that followed.
By any standard, the close encounter that occurred in the Red River Valley flatlands of far northwestern Minnesota in the early hours of August 27, 1979, must be judged one of the most remarkable - and evidential - UFO cases ever recorded. Unlike other potentially important UFO incidents, this one had the good fortune of being fully investigated and documented soon after its occurrence.
Deputy Sherrif Val Johnson, 35, was on duty on the west end of Marshall County, not far from North Dakota and approximately 45 miles south of the Canadian border. Around 1:40 a.m. Johnson, driving on County 5 west of Stephen, saw a light through his side window. The light was to his south, shining from a grove of trees standing alongside Highway 220, which he was approaching. It looked too glaring to be a vehicle headlight. Therefore, he reasoned, it could be from a downed airplane, perhaps one flown by drug smugglers from Canada.
Still, Johnson was not alarmed enough to call it into headquarters in Warren. First, he wanted to know with certainty what the light was. He turned south on 220 and accelerated to 65 mph. Now he was close enough to see that, oddly, the light was not illuminating the area or casting shadows. At that instant the light moved toward him, travelling so fast that it crossed the mile and a half separating him and it almost instantaneously. It made no sound, and even at close range it still looked like a blinding light.
"I heard glass breaking and saw the inside of the car light up real bright with white light," he told reporter Jim Durkin the next day. "It was very, very extremely bright. That's all I can remember... After the light hit my vehicle, I don't remember a thing."
When he returned to consciousness, his head was resting on the steering wheel, and his eyes were on the red "ENGINE" light on the dashboard. Lifting his head, he looked out the window and was alarmed to see the car had skidded sideways across the northbound lane and now faced eastward. The front tires were touching the gravel on the shoulder. Johnson could see only with difficulty.
He radioed headquarters and requested assistance. It was 2:19 a.m. His voice was shaky when he tried to answer the dispatcher's question about what had happened. "I don't know," he said. "Something attacked my car. I heard glass breaking, and my breaks locked up, and I don't know what the hell happened."
Deputy Greg Winskowski arrived on the scene shortly. Johnson was still inside the car, and when Winskowski opened the door, he saw a red bump on his colleague's forehead, leading him to deduce that Johnson had hit his head against the steering wheel and been knocked unconscious. Winskowski called an ambulance from the Warren hospital.
The ambulance driver thought Johnson appeared to be in a mild state of shock. At the hospital, Dr. W. A. Pinsonneault examined his eyes, which had a pinkish irritation on their surface. He was unable to examine them for long, however, because the doctor's probe light hurt so much that Johnson could not stand to be exposed to it for more than a few moments at a time. Pinsonneault likened them to "mild welder's burns" (caused by exposure to intense light) and handed out salve and bandages. Johnson gave a taped statement at the sheriff's office at 5 a.m. and then was driven home.
Sheriff Dennis Brekke, who had come upon the scene of the incident shortly after Winskowski's arrival, drove Johnson's patrol car, a 1977 Ford LTD, to the department garage. The drive was not a simple exercise because the car was damaged in a number of peculiar ways:
The inside headlight on the driver's side was smashed, though not its companion immediately to the left. On the hood, four feet four inches behind the smashed light and close to the windshield, was a flat-bottomed, circular dent, half an inch in diameter. (An investigator who saw it on the twenty-ninth noted, "As the 'creases' in the rear of the dent reveal, the pressure of the blow was delivered primarily downward and toward the windshield.") A crack in the windshield on the driver's side, about a foot and a half behind the dent, ran top to bottom, with four apparent impacts; it looked as if a cluster of small objects, stones perhaps, had done the damage. The car's electric clock, set correctly at 7 p.m. when Johnson came on duty, was 14 minutes late. So, weirdly, was the deputy's wind-up wristwatch, set at the same time.
Allan Hendry, who saw the car the following day, has described the other damage:
"The red plastic lens covering the roof light on the driver's side (2nd from left) shows a triangular puncture, and the lens was dislodged from the housing. Neither the missing piece of plastic nor any foreign debris could be found trapped inside the lamp housing. There is no apparent damage to the housing itself...
"The shaft of the three-foot roof antenna set on a spring-loaded base has been bent over at a 60-degree angle starting 5 1/2" above the spring. Insect matter can be seen still clinging to the metal (though the shaft is coated quite tenaciously with this tissue material). Oddest of all, the large "bubble" lamp is just inches in front of the antenna, and is virtually the same height as the location of the bend, but is unscathed...
"The trunk antenna is identical to the rooftop model... The bend this time is sharper still - 90 degrees - and involves only the upper 3 1/2" of the shaft. There is a rising angle of incidence from the first bend to the second one; with a 4'7" separation between antennas (horizontally) and an 18" rise in the second bend; this results in an 18-degree angle from front to back. This second antenna is for a CB radio. There was no damage to the car's regular telescopic antenna on the front hood. All the damage favoured the driver's side of the car. The rear antenna, 2'11" from the left side of the car, is the closest the damage got to the car's centerline."
At 11 a.m. Sherrif Brekke took his deputy, who still had bandages over his eyes, to Grand Forks, North Dakota, for a more comprehensive eye examination by opthalmologist Leonard Prochaska. Dr Prochaska found that Johnson's problems had cleared up. He was not surprised; as he would tell Hendry, it is not unusual for corneal flash burns (usually caused by exposure to strong sources of ultraviolet radiation such as a welders arc) to heal within hours.
Investigation and Analysis.
That morning the Sheriff also phoned the Centre for UFO Studies (CUFOS), then headquartered in Evanston, Illinois, and reported the incident. Allan Hendry, CUFOS' full-time investigator, took the call and quickly arranged to fly to the site the next day. Then he called military and civilian aviation facilities in Minnesota and North Dakota to see if any had picked up unusual traffic on the radar. None had.
Meanwhile, the Marshall County officers had found shattered pieces of headlight glass next to the milepost sign Johnson was near when the light accelerated in his direction. This seemed to establish that the "collision," if that is what it was, happened slightly over one mile south of the 5/220 intersection. The car travelled some 855 feet before dark skid marks in the pavement indicated that the brakes had locked up. The marks went on for an additional 99 feet before they curved to the east and crossed into the northbound lane. From an experiment with a car similar to the one Johnson had been driving, Brekke concluded that Johnson had been travelling at 48 mph when the skid marks started.
On the twenty-ninth Hendry, Johnson, Brekke, and others scoured the site. Nothing out of the ordinary registered on a Geiger counter. No additional physical evidence was recovered. Hendry determined that the damage was inconsistent with anything an airplane could have caused, and nothing he learned about Johnson's character and reputation led him to suspect the office of perpetrating a hoax - though, as we shall see, one commentator on the case would argue for this explanation of the case.
Meridan French, a windshield expert from the Glass Division of Ford Motor Company, flew to Warren to examine the fractures personally. His report reads in part:
"There were four distinct and separate fracture origins. One was on the inboard surface of the inner glass ply and three were on the exterior surface of the outer ply. Because all four origins were at different locations in the windshield, it is concluded that they represent four independent events. From the fracture patterns, however, it appears that the time between at least three events was extremely short, on the order of a few milliseconds... There was no penetration of the windshield laminate anywhere and no tears in the polyvinyl butyral interlayer... The character of all glass fractures showed them to be the result of mechanical forces rather than thermal stresses. In fact, there was no evidence of unusual heat, either general or localized... None of the four fracture origins were individually usual, any of which could be artificially reproduced. However, as a group and in combination they are difficult to explain... I judge the sequence of events to be as follows:
1. The first fracture was of the inboard ply with the fracture origin at the inside surface. The type of fracture would indicate an impact on the exterior surface of the windshield exactly opposite the fracture point. The impacting object was probably not metallic or stone-like because there was no apparent damage to the exterior surface at the point of impact. I would estimate the impacting object to be very firm, perhaps even hard, with a mass velocity sufficient to produce a relatively high (10,000 to 12,000 psi), highly localized stress. Examples of object types could range from a softball, baseball, or golfball to a rubber-headed hammer. Such a failure could also have been made with a blow from the side of a tightly closed fist.
In a laminated glass impact failure as described here, it is not unusual for the glass ply opposite the impact to fail while the impacted plate does not. Glass failure always originates as a defect or point of damage, and it often happens that the plate opposite the impact is the weaker of the two in the highly stressed impact area.
2. The second failure to occur was in the outer glass ply at a point approximately 0.9" below the first origin. The fracture is horizontal and forms a point of tangency between two circular crack patterns, one above the other. Failure originated on the outside surface from a relatively low level bending stress for which there are several possibilities:
Localized loading or pushing on the glass from the inside. This is unlikely because of the limited space between the glass and the padded cowl at the origin location.
Positive pressure inside the car which would bend the windshield outward.
Negative pressure outside the car which would achieve the same effect.
Localized inward bending of the glass by a relatively small impacting object for the first fracture would have caused a tensile bending stress in the outboard surface in the area of the second failure. This is the most plausible in view of the circular crack pattern above the second fracture origin.
3. The third fracture also originated on the outside surface about 1.0" below the second origin. In this case, the glass is severely crushed in a small, roughly circular area as though impacted by an extremely hard object but without sufficient force to cause additional cracking of the inner glass opposite the point of impact. There was no visible residue from the impacting object in the crushed glass area when examined closely with a 20x magnifier.
4. The fourth fracture origin was also on the exterior of the windshield, approximately 5.5" above the point of the second failure. This is also a bending stress failure oriented horizontally but is believed to be a secondary failure originating at a crack from an earlier failure.
5. There is also a band of very fine fractures several inches long with some degree of glass crushing, running almost vertically and just to the passenger side of the four principle fracture origins. This last cracking is all in the outboard ply, and I believe it to be a completely secondary fracture system probably resulting from normal flexing or cracking of the already broken windshield in moving the car after the original incident.
Even after several days of reflection on the crack pattern and apparent sequence of fractures, I still have no explanation for what seemed to be inward and outward forces acting almost simultaneously. I can only (conclude) ... that all cracks were from mechanical forces of an unknown source."
About the dent in the hood, French observed that evidently "some 1/2" diameter, flat-ended object made a forceful impact with the hood at that location and then tilted toward the windshield. It may even have been the source of the windshield impacts."
A team of engineers at the materials testing laboratory at Honeywell, Inc., Minneapolis, studied the two antennas, the glass pieces from the headlight, and the punctured plastic lens from the rooftop lamp. The engineers' analysis indicated that "flying particles" (such as rocks or stones) were responsible for the damage to the headlight glass and lamp plastic. But the bends in the antennas required mechanical forces uniformly applying several pounds of pressure. Other tests for magnetism or radiation produced no anomalous readings.
A Possible Hoax?
By the time Hendry arrived in Warren, local people were urging Johnson to undergo hypnosis and see if he could "recall" what happened during the sighting's missing 40 minutes. Evidently, some were speculating that he may have been abducted by a UFO. Johnson had no interest in the idea, and he also rejected suggestions that he take a polygraph test. As far as he was concerned, neither would accomplish anything besides satisfying other people's "morbid curiosity." His employers and his friends were sticking by him, and all he wanted to do was go on with his life. He turned down all invitations to appear on television, though he would change his mind and consent to a September 11 appearance on ABC television's Good Morning, America with Hendry.
In the absence of any direct evidence that Johnson had hoaxed the incident, Philip J. Klass, a fierce critic of the UFO phenomenon, argued the case by innuendo and buttressed it with sarcasm. In his view there were only two possible explanations: either the episode was a hoax, or "malicious UFOnauts" had hit the headlight, hood, and windshield with a "hammerlike device," gently bent the antennas, then set the clock and watch back 14 minutes. In other words, the alternative explanation - at least as Klass expressed it - was too absurd to be considered; therefore the incident must be a hoax.
Besides, Klass argued, Johnson's refusal to undergo a polygraph examination was suspicious. Debating Hendry at the Smithsonian Institution in September 1980, he claimed that "Deputy Val Johnson... likes to play practical jokes, especially in the late evening when he gets a little bored, as I learned... by talking to some of the people who have worked with him and know him very well."
It is hard to imagine by what definition the infliction of serious damage to a police car qualifies as a "practical joke." In a book published two years later, Klass cited as "evidence" a former co-worker's testimony that Johnson "did like to pull tricks on a guy once in a while... like maybe hide your coffee cup on you." This was the most damning charge Klass succeeded in uncovering, and even here his informant said, "I don't know if you'd call him a 'practical-joker'... As far as we know, he's never told us any untruths."
Almost exactly two days after the Marshall County close encounter - but hours before the story hit the press - Russ Johnson (not related to Val Johnson) was travelling on Highway 50 on the western outskirts of Vermillion, South Dakota, at 2 a.m., August 29, when he spotted what he took to be a single blinding headlight ahead of him. It was stationary for only two seconds; then it streaked toward him and in two seconds had engulfed his car. He closed his eyes and hit the brakes. His car skidded to a stop, spinning sideways across the road until - like Val Johnson's vehicle - it faced east. Opening his eyes, he watched the light heading towards the west. It angled upward slightly before it disappeared.
When Johnson notified the police immediately afterwards, they, in turn, alerted Prof. Robert Adams of the nearby University of South Dakota. Adams spoke with the witness half an hour after the event. The next day he went to the site with the still-shaken Johnson and saw the skidmarks.
When Val Johnson's story became known, other Warren County residents came forward to detail their own recent UFO sightings. One night in mid-August Jon Linnell and his wife, on their way home from Northwood, North Dakota, to Warren, "saw bright lights over a field to my left," Linnell said: "The light stayed in the same spot above the trees... 15 seconds later the thing came at us... It scared me. My wife said, 'It's going to hit us.' It came and hovered on top of us so we couldn't see what it was. We couldn't see the outline of it. When I'd almost stopped the car, it took a 180-degree turn and took off north. There were too many lights for a plane and there was no sound. When you tried to see what it was, it hurt your eyes."
Val Johnson said he had received three calls from individuals who stated that they had seen a bright light in the sky the night of his experience. In one instance, a farmer near Oslo (Johnson's hometown, just a few miles south of the encounter site) told him that - in Johnson's words - "a large light hovered over their farm bright enough to turn off his mercury yard light." Also "a bright light swooped down on a truck driver in the middle of the night," and, "one woman said a bright light passed over her farmstead and the electricity and television went out." None of these reports, unfortunately, was investigated.