On July 17, 1983, Capt. William Howard Hughes Jr. called his mother and told her was he heading to the Netherlands. The Airman, who worked as a lead analyst with a Top Secret clearance, had been tasked with helping NATO test aircraft surveillance systems. The orders were short-term, with him scheduled to return on August 1 of the same year, but that was the last anyone ever heard from Hughes — at least, under that name.

Within the conspiracy circles of the internet, rumors came and went over the decades — suggesting that Hughes may have been killed because of something he knew, may have fled the country for fear for his life, may have been a spy for a foreign government or, of course, may have been abducted by aliens. Some theories even suggested that Hughe’s had defected to the Soviet Union and had played a role in sabotaging NASA’s Space Shuttle Challenger and a series of failed American and French rocket launches in the mid-80s. An article in the Los Angeles Times in 1986 even came close to accusing Hughes directly of these crimes.

The story, published in 1986 under the title, “Sabotaged Missile Launches?: Explosions, Key Air Force Officer’s Disappearance Probed,” said:

Intelligence officers believe that Hughes was either captured by Soviet agents or voluntarily defected to the Soviet Union. At the time of his disappearance, the Air Force said that he had no classified materials with him. But these intelligence officers point out that Hughes’ knowledge of all the top-secret rocket launch procedures was invaluable to the Soviets, perhaps more so than the secrets delivered by recently captured spies. “He is worth his weight in gold to the Russians in terms of future ‘Star Wars,’ if we have them,” one said. They see a clear link between Hughes and possible sabotage of the American and French launches.

The Air Force once again affirmed that Hughes held a position of some import prior to his disappearance in a statement they released this week, saying, “He was assigned to the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center, Kirtland AFB, N.M., where his duties included classified planning and analysis of the NATO command, control, and communications surveillance systems.”

The fact that he was last seen withdrawing nearly $30,000 from his bank account from 19 different locations just prior to his disappearance lent itself to any or all of these various proposed theories when dressed up properly (even aliens need to buy snacks now and then) but for the past 35 years, that’s all they’ve been: theories.

That is, until last week, when the Air Force Office of Special Investigations Detachment 303 found Hughes — not in Russia or on the moon, but right here in California, living under the assumed alias Barry O’Beirne. He’d been caught thanks to a passport fraud investigation led by U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service, who confronted Hughes about inconsistencies in his claimed identity. Soon after he was confronted, Hughes admitted that he had deserted his post all those years ago.

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According to Hughes, he’d grown depressed about his work in the Air Force upon his return from his brief trip to the Netherlands and chose to simply walk away from the life he’d led for the 33 years priors. He withdrew his all his money and invented a new persona — intent on finding a new life he’d feel more content with.

Not quite the dramatic turn of events most conspiracy theorists attributed to the man’s disappearance, but this revelation does beg several questions about how a man with access to United States and NATO designated “Top Secret” programs could simply fall off the radar and assume a new identity just two states away from his duty station — and then get away with it for three and a half decades.

“Interviews of friends, associates and coworkers failed to disclose information regarding Hughes’ whereabouts. Checks with law enforcement agencies both in the United States and overseas also failed to locate him,” the Air Force said.

His sister, Christine Hughes, has long held that her brother would never have defected, but she also always held that her brother would not have disappeared voluntarily, fueling the theories that something must have happened to Hughes during or immediately after his trip to the Netherlands. According to the sister, leaving without telling anyone would be “totally out of character for the Bill we knew.”

It would seem, however, that leaving without telling anyone was exactly what Hughes did, though some still question if he may have provided any of his classified know-how to America’s enemies. Thus far, there’s no evidence to suggest that he did, but officials are still taking the possibility seriously.“They (AFOSI investigators) said at this point there’s no indication that he had any classified information or that he gave any classified information,” AFOSI spokeswoman Linda Card said. “Until we have the whole story, we don’t have the story.”

Hughes has been charged with desertion and is in custody awaiting trial.

Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force