Missing Air Force officer found 35 years later

Missing Air Force officer found 35 years later

A United States Air Force officer with top-secret clearance who deserted 35 years ago has been caught in California, where he has been living under an alias for more than three decades.

Hughes, discovered because of a passport fraud investigation, was arrested for desertion last week, the Air Force announced.

It was July 17, 1983, and the Air Force was sending Hughes overseas on a mission to help North Atlantic Treaty Organisation test aircraft surveillance systems.

He was last sent overseas, to the Netherlands, on July 18, 1983, to work with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) officers.

The Air Force said that Hughes had a "Top Secret/Single Scope Background Investigation" clearance at the time of his disappearance.

In 1986, journalist Tad Szulc wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece that at least some intelligence officers "believe that Hughes was either captured by Soviet agents or voluntarily defected to the Soviet Union".

But an Office of Special Investigations spokesperson Linda Card told the Albuquerque Journal there was no indication Hughes was involved with the Soviet Union or that any classified information was leaked.

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"Hughes claimed that in 1983 he was depressed about being in the Air Force so he left, created the fictitious identity of O'Beirne and has been living in California ever since", the statement said.

Hughes is awaiting pretrial proceedings for his desertion case at the Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, Calif. He was officially declared a deserter by the Air Force on December 9 of that year.

He had a Top Secret/Single Scope Background Investigation clearance, which meant he had access to US and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation secret information. He was last seen withdrawing more than $28,000 in Albuquerque in summer 1983 after returning from a two-week vacation in Europe. Hughes had been claiming to be an individual named Barry O'Beirne but admitted that he was actually named William Howard Hughes, Jr. and that he had deserted the air force, the OSI said. "He was very pleasant", said neighbor June Dayao, 60, a retired teacher who recognised her neighbour's face in a photograph released by the Air Force.

Hughes was apprehended at his California home.

At the time of his disappearance, Hughes was in his early thirties.

In a 1986 Los Angeles Times commentary titled "Sabotaged Missile Launches?" for example, the former longtime New York Times foreign correspondent Tad Szulc wrote: "The French and American accidents are adding up to a freaky pattern, surrounded by odd coincidences and unexplained events, deeply preoccupying Western intelligence".

"(Intelligence officers) see a clear link between Hughes and possible sabotage of the American and French launches", the newspaper reported then.

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