An Air Force officer with top secret security clearance who vanished suddenly during the Cold War and placed on the Air Force’s Most Wanted list, was found nearly 35 years after his mysterious disappearance living quietly under a new name in California.
Capt. William Howard Hughes Jr., a 31-year-old lead surveillance analyst on a New Mexico base, was sent on a trip to help NATO test aircraft surveillance systems in the Netherlands in July 1983. He never reappeared.
Authorities later found his car at the Albuquerque International Airport, and they watched surveillance video in which he withdrew nearly $30,000 from banks in the area. The timing caused them to believe he’d returned from his trip to the Netherlands early and disappeared.
Rumors of defection to the Soviets or other nations spread after Hughes’ disappearance. According to the Washington Post, some worried his intel—and resulting Soviet sabotage—might have been a factor in some NASA disasters, including the Challenger explosion. The Air Force, however, said that there was no evidence Hughes had shared any top-secret information. According to the Albuquerque Journal, Pentagon officials said at the time that, although he had top secret clearance, he had no knowledge that could “compromise national security.”
Last week, the mystery was solved when authorities investigating possible passport fraud found a man named Barry O’Beirne. When the authorities pressed him about inconsistencies in his passport, he confessed about his real identity.
Hughes deserted because he was “depressed about being in the Air Force,” according to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. He says he had been living quietly in California ever since.
Hughes was arrested Tuesday, and, according to the Air Force OSI, he is awaiting pretrial proceedings for his desertion charges. He faces up to five years of confinement.
Correction, June 11, 2018: This post mistakenly said Hughes reportedly “defected” because he was depressed about being in the Air Force. It should’ve said he deserted for that reason.