The real-life UFO story behind this season of 'Fargo'

Val Johnson sat behind the wheel of a squad car.
Val Johnson sat inside a new Marshall County squad car two months after the incident.
Regene Radniecki | Star Tribune 1979

"This is a true story."

Those words kick off every episode of "Fargo" — they were also at the start of the 1996 movie.

Of course the Coen brothers, and now show creator Noah Hawley, are playing fast-and-loose with "truth." But one of the most unbelievable, out-of-this-world parts of season two is, in fact, "a true story."

(Stop reading now if you're not caught up, Fargo watchers.)

We're talking about the aliens.

So far, unexplained lights and UFO-talk have been in all three episodes of "Fargo," which takes place in and around Luverne, Minn., in 1979.

For these supernatural allusions, Hawley may be pulling straight from the local history books.

Minnesota in the 1970s was something of a hotbed of UFO activity — for the people who believe in that kind of thing. "This was a big decade for UFOs in Minnesota," said Dave Kenney, co-author of "Minnesota in the 70s."

The end of the decade, 1979, brought one of the most notorious unexplained encounters in the whole UFO canon: Val Johnson's late-night crash.

Deputy Val Johnson stood where he saw the light.
A few weeks after the incident, Johnson stood where he says he was engulfed by a flash of light, and indicated how big the beam was as it approached.
Stormi Greener | Star Tribune 1979

Johnson was a Marshall County sheriff's deputy on night patrol outside Warren, Minn., near the North Dakota-Minnesota border. In the early hours of Aug. 26, 1979, he was driving a rural stretch of State Highway 20 when, he says, a ball of light appeared in the road.

"I noticed a very bright, brilliant light, 8 to 12 inches in diameter, 3 to 4 feet off the ground," Johnson said in a taped police interview. "The edges were very defined."

The next thing Johnson knew, the light was in the car with him.

It hit him, Johnson said, "like a 200-pound pillow."

Johnson's car is preserved at the county museum.
Val Johnson's squad car, a 1977 Ford LTD known locally as the 'UFO Car' is preserved in the Marshall County Museum. People still come from miles around to see it.
Courtesy of the Marshall County Museum

He woke up in a ditch a half-hour later with burns around his eyes. The windshield and one headlight of his 1977 Ford LTD were smashed. Both radio antennas were bent sharply back. The watch on his wrist and the clock on the dash both ticked 14 minutes slow.

Police investigated and never drew any conclusions. But the UFO researchers have plenty of their own.

Jerome Clark, the author of "The UFO Encyclopedia," says the "Val Johnson Incident" remains one of the top 10 most influential UFO encounters in history.

MPR News reporter John Enger recently caught up with Johnson, 36 years after the incident. He's retired, with grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He lives in Eau Claire, Wis.

While believers tout the story as one of the strongest pieces of evidence of extraterrestrial life, Johnson won't speculate on what happened to him that night. He says he doesn't even think about it much.

Johnson's story has plenty of parallels to what "Fargo" fans are watching play out on TV: the small-town cop, the rural highways, the strange lights in the sky.

What remains to be seen is how far Hawley and "Fargo" will take their fictionalized version of the "Val Johnson incident."

When asked about the UFOs by "Vanity Fair," Hawley kept things mysterious: "Look, the Coens' universe is very much a place where you have to accept the mystery and figure out ... does it mean something? Does it not mean something?"

We'll have to watch and see.

Hear Val Johnson describe the encounter himself in the most recent episode of "Aw Jeez," a "Fargo" recap podcast.