An Air Force captain who deserted in 1983 amid speculation of Cold War espionage was arrested last week at his home in California, where he had been living under a fictitious identity for 35 years, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations said.
But federal authorities were interviewing a man named Barry O'Beirne last Tuesday as part of a passport fraud investigation, and when they challenged him over his identity's inconsistencies, he said he was Hughes and had deserted the Air Force in 1983, the news release said.
Hughes, who had top-secret clearance when he was in the Air Force, worked on classified North Atlantic Treaty Organisation systems, the AFOSI says.
Prior to his disappearance, Hughes was last seen in New Mexico withdrawing a total of $28,500 from his bank account at 19 different branch locations.
After the jig was up, he told authorities he was depressed about being in the air force and made a decision to desert. He says he created a fake identity and lived in California since he vanished in 1983.
Last week, nearly 35 years since he vanished, Hughes has been discovered in California, where he has spent the last three decades under an assumed name.
A spokeswoman for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations told the Albuquerque Journal there's no sign Hughes leaked classified information or was involved with the Soviet Union, but that investigations are underway. If convicted, he might face maximum penalties of dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and confinement of five years.
At the time of his disappearance, the Air Force said Hughes had a "Top Secret/Single Scope Background Investigation" clearance. Lists of plans and books he wanted to read were found inside his home, the Albuquerque Journal reports. His orders included working with other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) officers on the operation of Airborne Warning and Control (AWACS) electronic surveillance aircraft, officials stated.
Hughes was unmarried when he disappeared, but the Seattle native had three sisters.
Quoting anonymous intelligence sources, Szulc wrote that the intelligence community feared Hughes had either been captured by Soviets or that he voluntarily defected.
After he vanished, investigators interviewed friends, associates and coworkers but could not find a trail leading to the missing man; checks with law enforcement agencies both in the United States and overseas also failed to locate him.
"Until we have the whole story, we don't have the story", she told the newspaper.
One such anonymous official said, "He is worth his weight in gold to the Russians in terms of future 'Star Wars, ' if we have them".