National News

Air Force Captain Who Deserted in 1983 Is Found in California, Using a Fake Identity

Posted June 12, 2018 4:23 p.m. EDT

A U.S. Air Force officer who deserted 35 years ago was apprehended in California last week, where he was living under a fake identity.

The officer, Capt. William Howard Hughes Jr., 66, told investigators he had become depressed about his job and decided to flee in 1983. He could face up to five years of confinement, forfeiture of his pay and a dishonorable discharge from the Air Force.

Hughes, who is at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California, awaiting pretrial confinement, was discovered during a passport fraud investigation, according to a report released by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.

In the 1980s, he was based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where his duties included classified planning and analysis of NATO surveillance systems. He had top-secret clearance, but investigators said there was no indication he had given away classified information.

Hughes, who was unmarried at the time he fled, had been temporarily assigned to the Netherlands on July 18, 1983, to work with NATO officers. He was slated to return to Albuquerque on Aug. 1, but never showed. On Dec. 9, the Air Force declared him a deserter.

For years, the details of his disappearance remained a mystery. The Albuquerque Journal reported in early 1984 that Hughes had left his car at the airport. Investigators said he was last seen withdrawing $28,500 from 19 bank branches. They raided his home and found to-do lists.

Air Force investigators interviewed friends, associates and co-workers, who said they did not know his whereabouts. Family members wondered if he had been abducted. Attempts by the Air Force to track him down at home and abroad were unsuccessful.

The Cold War was years from ending and tensions with the Soviet Union were high, leaving many to wonder if there had been foul play. According to a 1986 article in The Los Angeles Times, intelligence officers believed that Hughes had either defected to the Soviet Union or been captured by Russian agents. Hughes, these officers said, had knowledge of top-secret launch procedures. “He is worth his weight in gold to the Russians,” one of them was quoted as saying.

In fact, he had not defected. He told investigators last week that he had created an alias, Barry O’Beirne, and moved to California. On June 5, Air Force investigators confronted him about inconsistencies in his identity, and he acknowledged that he was Hughes.

He was detained at his house in Daly City, California, a suburb of San Francisco. Neighbors described him as quiet and a fan of the San Francisco Giants.