Missing US air force officer found after 35 years

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A man who allegedly deserted the U.S. Air Force and vanished without a trace 35 years ago was found at a California home living under a fake name, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations said in a news release.

A former Air Force officer, Howard Hughes Jr., was missing for over 35 years.

"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", the Air Force said in a statement.

Hughes was seen in the Albuquerque area withdrawing more than $28,000 from bank accounts, according to the AFOSI news release.

Hughes, who had top-secret clearance when he was in the Air Force, worked on classified North Atlantic Treaty Organisation systems, the AFOSI says.

Hughes is at Travis Air Force Base awaiting pre-trial confinement. The Air Force officially declared him deserted in December 1983.

The Albuquerque Journal reported that in 1984, the Pentagon had said that though he had top secret clearance, he did not have clearance that could "compromise national security".

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

An undated picture of Capt. William Howard Hughes, Jr.

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

There was speculation in the 1980s that Hughes, who specialized in space-launch command, control and communications for satellite surveillance systems, had defected to the Soviet Union, the Los Angeles Times reported in a July 1986 article.

He claimed he had been depressed about being in the air force so left and created a false identity.

Agents from the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations took Hughes into custody at his California home Wednesday, the Air Force said.

"We do not feel he disappeared voluntarily", his sister, Christine Hughes, had said, according to the Albuquerque Journal. The family have now been notified.

After several rocket ship failures in the United States and France, including the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986, Los Angeles Times journalist Tad Szulc theorised Capt Hughes may have been to blame.

He faces a maximum sentence of five years confinement, forfeiture of all pay and dishonourable discharge for his desertion.

"Until we have the whole story", she said, "we don't have the story".

"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.

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