It’s not clear exactly how long a man who called himself Barry O’Beirne lived a quiet life in Daly City, the sleepy suburb a few miles south of San Francisco. It’s also not clear what he was doing on the morning of Wednesday, June 6, 2018, when, after 35 years, Air Force special agents knocked on his door and arrested him for desertion.
The jigsaw puzzle of William Howard Hughes Jr.’s life has many missing pieces. After disappearing into thin air in 1983 he was wanted across the globe by numerous agencies, from the Air Force to the FBI to Interpol. At one point it was thought that he defected to the Russians. Some suggested he sabotaged the disastrous Challenger space shuttle launch. Even after his recent capture, much of this unlikely story remains a mystery for the ages. Here’s what we found out.
Born in Seattle in 1950 to a father who worked in the airline industry, Hughes had three sisters. He left the Pacific Northwest in his 20s to embark on a career in the Air Force, where he enlisted in 1973. By the age of 33 he was a captain at Kirtland Air Force base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he gained top secret access, working on a NATO program that controlled missile launches and missile warning systems.
Hughes bought a modest home in Albuquerque near the base and lived alone. In July of 1983 he was transferred to the Netherlands for a short trip to work on the same technology there. He was due to report back to Kirtland on Aug 1.
Hughes never returned to his air base. The Air Force revealed that he was seen withdrawing money from various ATMs in Albuquerque in late July — the Air Force reported that $28,500 was withdrawn from his account at 19 different locations. A search of his home on Chandelle Loop found to-do lists and books to read upon his return. His car was later found at Albuquerque International Airport. William Howard Hughes was officially classified as absent without leave on Aug 10, 1983.
At that time in New York City, 37-year-old real estate developer Donald Trump was finishing the construction of Trump Tower. Hughes wouldn’t be seen again until Trump was president.
The disappearance of Hughes came during the dark dying days of the Cold War. The US government would later describe the likelihood of a nuclear strike in the fall of 1983 as resting on a “hair trigger.”
With his recent trip to Europe in mind, when asked if there was a possibility that Hughes had defected to the Russians, an Air Force captain at Kirtland told an Arizona Journal reporter, “that has to be an option.”
He wasn’t accused of being a spy, but On December 9, Hughes was declared a deserter — a crime punishable with 5 years imprisonment, or execution in a time of war.
The story became front page news in January, five months after his vanishing, when his photograph was published in the Chicago Tribune after the Air Force sent it out to police departments across the country.
Pentagon officials confirmed that a captain “with top secret access is missing under mysterious circumstances.” With Cold War paranoia high, the FBI tried to downplay fears, telling the press that “there is no indication of espionage at this point.”
After months of silence, Hughes’ sisters in Seattle spoke out, pushing back on the idea that their brother was a spy, instead stating he was likely abducted. Sister Christine Hughes described his disappearance as “totally out of character for the Bill we knew. We do not feel he disappeared voluntarily.”
In a prepared statement, the family added that William was a brilliant, dedicated man who phoned his parents regularly before he vanished. A family reunion had been planned for the fall and Hughes was “always careful to notify his family of his whereabouts.”
Police forces across the country and numerous military and international agencies tried to find Hughes, with no success. The Air Force said they interviewed friends and coworkers to no avail.
In an interview with the Seattle Times a year later, Hughes’ sister Christine described the family’s heartache, “The holidays are the worst time, we make sure we’re together to try and help each other through.”
Hughes’ name was next aired in the press by an acclaimed journalist credited with breaking the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 — New York Times foreign correspondent Tad Szulc.
In his 1986 LA Times story, titled, “Sabotaged Missile Launches?” Szulc noted a “bizarre pattern” of failed space rocket and missile launches by the US and France in recent months. Three launches of aircraft with US surveillance satellites aboard, including the Challenger space shuttle that launched from Cape Canaveral on January 28 and exploded 73 seconds later, killing all 7 crew members, were named as potentially caused by sabotage. Those failures resulted in the US having no ability to monitor Russia’s nuclear deployment.
In the article, Szulc named only one possible suspect — William Howard Hughes, as the potential saboteur, claiming his Pentagon sources told him as much.
“They see a clear link between Hughes and possible sabotage of the American and French launches,” Szulc wrote before quoting an unnamed Pentagon source as saying “He is worth his weight in gold to the Russians.”
As the Cold War started to thaw, the story, and the missing Air Force captain, were largely forgotten in the media.
A search through the archives reveals William Howard Hughes’ name was not mentioned once in the press between 1987 and 2017.
In June 2018, US Department of State special agents traveled to Daly City on a passport fraud investigation to interview a man living as Barry Timothy 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 U.S. Air Force in 1983,” the Air Force news release read.
On the quiet suburban street of Michelle Lane, just a couple miles south of San Francisco’s city limit, Hughes had been living with his wife in a modest two-bed, two-bath townhouse.
Neighbors of the man they knew simply as “Tim” were surprised to learn that they were living next to the Air Force’s most wanted man.
“He was very pleasant,” Daly City resident June Dayao told reporters when shown his photograph, “that’s him but he always had his Giants hat on.”
“We see him at the gym all the time,” another neighbor, Barbara Laurel, told CNN. “But when he works out he just uses the treadmill and doesn’t really interact with anybody.”
Reportedly a very private man, “Tim” was assumed to be retired by his neighbors, and known for little beyond his devotion to the Giants.
“I guess you never know a person until you dig deep,” another neighbor told TV news crews.
Hughes was later revealed to have worked as a consultant and actuary for the University of California in Oakland during the 2000s, under the name Barry Timothy O’Beirnes. Colleagues there remembered him in only positive terms.
“He is very smart,” coworker Stephanie Rosh told the Chronicle at the time. “Always had a wry sense of humor. Always joking.”
When arrested, Hughes was taken to Travis Air Force base in Fairfield. There, he told investigators he was not a spy. He claimed he became depressed about being in the Air Force back in 1983, so he simply left, changed his identity and has lived in California ever since.
Facing up to five years of confinement, forfeiture of his pay and a dishonorable discharge, military court records reveal Hughes was found guilty of desertion and was sentenced to 45 days in military prison in September 2018. He subsequently lost an appeal a month later.
It seems possible that Hughes’ wife didn’t know his true identity either — San Mateo County court records reveal that the woman, who took his fake last name, filed for a marriage annulment two months after his arrest.
Why did Hughes not just resign his commission in the Air Force? What pushed him to change his identity and cause his family pain for decades? Was it just a coincidence that a captain with top secret clearance working on highly classified missile tech became disillusioned with the work and walked out at the peak of the Cold War, without telling a soul?
Maybe Hughes’ explanation was true — the pressure of working with NATO during a time of nuclear threat is no small burden. We’ll never know the intricacies of what was happening in his life, but maybe the opportunity to clean the slate and live an anonymous life, saying hi to neighbors, running the treadmill and watching the Giants felt like the only way forward. It’s unclear if Hughes’ once-heartbroken siblings ever reconnected with their brother, they haven’t spoken publicly since his arrest.
William Howard Hughes’ current whereabouts are unknown.
SFGATE reached out to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations for further details on the case, but had not heard back at time of publication.
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