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Sunspot observatory mystery defined: FBI child porn raid

IT was aliens. It was Russian espionage. It was a conspiracy to hide knowledge of a killer solar flare. Turns out, it was none of those things.

When the FBI arrived at a remote mountaintop observatory built to study the sun a fortnight ago, they did so in an unusual manner. They came by Blackhawk helicopter. Reports state some were wearing hazardous material equipment.

The Sunspot Solar Observatory research facility, which overlooks two large and sensitive US military facilities – the US Air Force’s Holloman Air Force Base and the US Army’s White Sands Missile Range – was evacuated. Local police reported seeing agents swarming over antenna and communications equipment.

Nobody — including the local sheriff — was told anything more than the raid was related to a ‘security issue’.

Trust no-one.

Rumours ran rampant.

After all, it all seemed like the opening sequence of a science fiction story.

But the truth is out there.

media_cameraThe entrance to Sunspot Observatory is blocked near Alamogordo, New Mexico. Picture: AP

ELECTRONICS SIEZED

An FBI federal court affidavit reveals its agents had stormed the observatory on suspicion that its Wi-Fi was being used to download child pornography.

The document read that the FBI had “identified the suspect as a janitor under contract to clean the facility, whose laptop was found to have been used to connect to the observatory’s wireless system,” Reuters reports.

“The warrant issued by a US magistrate in Las Cruces, New Mexico, showed that on Sept. 14 agents removed from the man’s home three cell phones, five laptops, one iPad, an external hard drive, 16 thumb drives, 89 compact flash disks and other material”.

No suspect has been arrested or charged.

The investigation continues, the FBI says.

THE JANITOR DID IT?

FBI documents reveal their raid was sparked after the observatory’s IP address was linked to child pornography activity. This was soon confirmed by the observatory itself.

An affidavit written by FBI Special Agent Lisa Kite Hill said the facility’s chief observer also found a laptop that appeared to have been used to store pornography. The times the downloads took place matched the scheduled working hours for the janitor, Hill’s affidavit said.

Once the laptop had been taken, the janitor reportedly began making comments that “security was so lax” at the facility, according to the affidavit.

“I should be able to throw a laptop down in a room and not have to worry about someone stealing it,” the janitor was quoted as saying.

The chief observer then told an FBI agent he had become concerned for his safety.

The janitor, who thought his laptop had been stolen, had reportedly begun telling staff that ‘security was so lax’ that a serial killer ‘might enter the facility and execute someone’.

A statement from AURA says it is “co-operating with an ongoing law enforcement investigation of criminal activity,” and that the observatory was closed because “a suspect in the investigation potentially posed a threat to the safety of local staff and residents.”

AURA says this was its decision — not the FBI’s.

media_cameraSunspot Solar Observatory, top, on Sacramento Peak near Sunspot, New Mexico.

STUFF OF LEGEND

The whole incident has been met with bewilderment by locals of the tiny Sunspot community supporting the collection of telescopes and sensors scattered over Sacramento Peak.

US Postal Service spokesman Rod Spurgeon told local media the situation was “strange” after authorities walked into the nearby post office without warning and told the clerk to evacuate.

“I wasn’t present … so I’m not sure which law enforcement agency told us to evacuate,” Spurgeon said. Nobody was told why, nor for how long, he said.

Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) staff have been allowed back into the facility to resume their research.

“We recognise that the lack of communications while the facility was vacated was concerning and frustrating for some,” AURA representatives said in a statement.

“However, our desire to provide additional information had to be balanced against the risk that, if spread at the time, the news would alert the suspect and impede the law enforcement investigation,” the AURA statement added. “That was a risk we could not take.”

The local sheriff, however, has lashed out at the confused and overly-secret way the incident was handled by the FBI and observatory operators.

Originally published as Strange observatory raid explained

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