DALY CITY, California — Neighbors knew him as Tim, a quiet man who kept to himself but was always pleasant and never left the house without his San Francisco Giants cap on.
Then his picture appeared on the news and TV satellite trucks showed up Monday on their quiet, tree-lined street in Daly City, just south of San Francisco, and it became clear their neighbor was not who they had thought.
The Air Force Office of Special Investigations said in a news release they had apprehended the man, identified as Capt. William Howard Hughes, Jr., an officer who had top security clearance when he disappeared in New Mexico 35 years ago.
Hughes was charged with desertion and is being held at Travis Air Force Base in California. He could face up to five years of confinement, forfeiture of all pay and dishonorable discharge from the Air Force.
Authorities say they arrested Hughes last week at his residence in California where he was living under the name “Barry O’Beirne.”
Official records show that O’Beirne used Timothy as a middle name.
“Everyone knew him as Tim. He was very pleasant,” said neighbor June Dayao, 60, a retired teacher who recognized her neighbor’s face in a photograph released by the Air Force. “That’s him but he always had his Giants hat on.”
Dayao and her husband had talked about going to a Giants game together with him and his partner. Dayao said the woman was already living in the house when Hughes moved in several years ago.
Messages left on an answering machine at the couple’s home number were not immediately returned.
Neighbor Lorenzo Laurel, 62, said Hughes was an “ideal neighbor.”
“I would only see him when he leaves or throws out the garbage, he was very private,” said Laurel, who never knew his neighbor’s occupation and assumed he was retired. Laurel lives directly across from Hughes and said he had not seen him in recent weeks.
Another neighbor, Michael Tom, 63, said Hughes and the woman would take walks around the neighborhood but otherwise didn’t mingle with neighbors and led private lives.
“This is a complete shock,” Tom said.
Nobody answered the doorbell at the home where Hughes lived, on a street of identical grey, 2-story townhouses. Patio furniture on an upstairs terrace was covered and the blinds were drawn. Neighbors interviewed by the AP said they were made aware of their neighbor’s arrest by media reports, but had not witnessed it.
Hughes was apprehended after a passport fraud investigation, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations said in a statement.
He told authorities after his capture Wednesday that he was depressed about being in the Air Force and decided to leave, saying he created a fake identity and lived in California since he vanished in 1983, according to the statement.
Hughes was involved in classified planning and analysis of NATO’s control, command and communications surveillance systems during the Cold War. He specialized in radar surveillance.
A captain at Kirtland Air Force Base, Hughes was 33 and single when he vanished, according to news reports from the time of his disappearance.
He was last seen withdrawing more than $28,000 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the summer of 1983 after returning from a two-week vacation in Europe. He had just completed a stint in the Netherlands, where he worked with NATO officers on the Airborne Warning and Control electronic surveillance aircraft. He was supposed to be back in Albuquerque by August of that year.
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.
It’s unclear if he had an attorney who could comment on his behalf.
Several other fugitives are on the Air Force’s wanted list, including others who have been on the run since the 1980s for various reasons that stem from drug charges to security issues.
Last year, investigators caught a fugitive in Florida who had been living under another identity since 1972. MKH