National News

Neighbors of Cold War-era Air Force deserter knew him as 'Tim'

Posted June 12, 2018 12:54 a.m. EDT
Updated June 12, 2018 3:12 a.m. EDT

— Neighbors of a US Air Force captain found living in their community under a false name 35 years after allegedly deserting say they were shocked to discover his past and that his false name wasn't even the one they knew him by.

Capt. William Howard Hughes Jr. disappeared in July of 1983 after returning from duty in Europe. The officer -- who had top secret security clearance -- was formally declared a deserter later that year.

However, a passport fraud investigation earlier this month uncovered a man living in Daly City, California, under the name of Barry O'Beirne who, according to the Air Force, admitted that his true name was William Howard Hughes Jr.

Hughes' neighbors say with them, Hughes went by yet another name, "Tim."

"I feel betrayed. Like, what? You didn't tell us. Your name's not Tim? That's how we know him, as Tim," neighbor June Dayao told CNN affiliate KRQE.

A good neighbor

Steve Devine told CNN that Hughes had been a "very friendly, very pleasant individual" and a good neighbor.

"We rooted for the same baseball team, San Francisco Giants. I would see him walking through the neighborhood like myself, we were both retired, quick 'hi how are you," Devine said.

 He said Hughes lived with his wife and that the couple had no children.

The news of Hughes' true identity was "very shocking."

"I wouldn't have known anything like that at all, I had no idea," Devine said. He said Hughes had appeared to be around the same age: "I turned 65 this year ... I felt like we ... had walked similar paths in life and he was retiring, and enjoying his retirement."

Another neighbor, Barbara Laurel said she and her husband would see the man she knew as "Tim" at the gym with his wife.

"He'd usually say 'hi' to us," she said. "We see him at the gym all the time but when he works out he just uses the treadmill and doesn't really interact with anybody."

Michael Tom said "Tim" and the woman he lived with seemed "like a nice couple." Tom said he thought both were still working. 

"He seems like a good person, he's a sports fan, you know, Giants, Warriors and all that. But I haven't seen anything that would seem like he's a bad person."

Tom said he was surprised that "Tim" could be involved in identity fraud.

How he was discovered

In a statement, the US Air Force office of Special Investigations said the last sighting of Hughes before he disappeared in 1983 had been in New Mexico, where the officer had withdrawn $28,500 from his bank account at 19 different branch locations.

Interviews with Hughes' friends and associates and inquiries with law enforcement agencies in the US and abroad failed to locate him, the statement said, and he was formally declared a deserter on December 9, 1983.

Then just a few days ago, the mystery that began more than three decades ago came to an end.

"On June 5, during a passport fraud investigation, the US Department of State's Diplomatic Security Service interviewed an individual claiming to be Barry O'Beirne. After being confronted with inconsistencies about his identity, the individual admitted his true name was William Howard Hughes Jr., and that he deserted from the US Air Force in 1983," the Air Force said.

"Capt. 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."

Special agents from Travis Air Force Base took Hughes into custody at his California home Wednesday and he is being held at the base, the Air Force said. It is unclear what charges he faces.

Cold War intrigue

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

His mysterious disappearance during the Cold War spurred theories that he had been abducted by the Soviet Union or defected to what was then known as the USSR to work against the US.

In 1985 and 1986, several French and American rocket ships failed to launch properly and subsequently exploded, including the Challenger space shuttle. In the wake of those disasters, Los Angeles Times journalist Tad Szulc reported in July of 1986 that intelligence officers believed the rockets may have been sabotaged with Hughes' help.

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

"He is worth his weight in gold to the Russians in terms of future 'Star Wars,' if we have them," one intelligence officer told the Times.

Hughes' sister, Christine Hughes, told the Associated Press in a January 1984 article that the family believed he had been abducted, according to the Albuquerque Journal.