Air Force officer who vanished in 1983 is found in California

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A high ranking Air Force officer, who went missing 35 years ago, was apprehended by officials when they found him living under a false identity in California on June 6. In July 1983, Hughes had been assigned to temporary duty in the Netherlands to work with North Atlantic Treaty Organisation officers "on the operations of Airborne Warning and Control electronic surveillance aircraft" but never resurfaced after leaving for Europe. He deserted in July 1983 after a temporary assignment in the Netherlands, and was last seen around Albuquerque, N.M., withdrawing $28,500 from 19 different bank locations.

Hughes said he had been depressed about being in the Air Force so he deserted, made up the O'Beirne identity and moved to California, the Air Force said. He said he had lived in California since then. The U.S. State Department was investigating Hughes - who claimed to be "Barry O'Beirne" - for possible passport fraud when he revealed his true identity.

That officer, Capt. William Howard Hughes Jr., was apprehended in California on Wednesday, more than 30 years after his mysterious disappearance.

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

Hughes was assigned to temporary duty in the Netherlands, working with North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to test its new Airborne Warning and Control System, created to be used for surveillance, command and control, battle space management and communications.

After Hughes disappeared, his vehicle was found at the Albuquerque airport and a search of his home revealed notes of planned activities and books to read upon his return, the Albuquerque Journal said. He was supposed to report back to Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico in August 1983, but he didn't show up.

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Linda Card, spokeswoman for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, told the Albuquerque Journal that at this stage, investigators have had "no indication that he had any classified information or that he gave any classified information".

Checks with law enforcement around the USA and overseas, alongside interviews with those who knew Hughes, did not provide enough information for the Air Force to find him at the time.

Quoting anonymous intelligence sources, Szulc wrote that the intelligence community feared Hughes had either been captured by Soviets or that he voluntarily defected.

It is unknown whether family had been in contact with Hughes or knew of his whereabouts following his 1983 disappearance.

Upon launching its investigation into Hughes, the Air Force did not immediately rule out defection as a possibility, according to 1984 newspaper accounts in the Albuquerque Journal in which a public affairs officer said it is one "option". "Until we have the whole story, we don't have the story". Those officers suggested Hughes may have been linked to possible sabotage of some failed US and French rocket launches.

Mr Szulc also said an intelligence officer told him Capt Hughes was "worth his weight in gold to the Russians in terms of future "Star Wars".

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