Air Force deserter worked for University of California

FILE - This combination of photos provided by the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations shows William Howard Hughes Jr., after being captured in June 2018, at left, and an image from his time at the U.S. Air Force. Hughes, a Kirtland Air Force Base officer with top security clearance, who deserted 35 years ago and was arrested in California last week worked for years as a consultant for the University of California. (U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations via AP, File)

OAKLAND, Calif. — An Air Force officer with top security clearance who deserted 35 years ago and was arrested in California last week worked for years as a consultant for the University of California system, former colleagues said.

University system colleagues knew William Howard Hughes Jr. as a personable, brainy number cruncher for the system's vast health benefits program, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Wednesday.

The Air Force Office of Special Investigations said Hughes was charged with desertion and is being held at Travis Air Force Base in California. They said he was living under the name Barry O'Beirne.

Official records show that O'Beirne used Timothy as a middle name.

"This just floors me," Judy Boyette said, a San Francisco attorney who signed O'Beirne's consulting contracts when she ran human resources and benefits at UC more than a decade ago. Looking at a photo of her former colleague in custody, Boyette was stunned. "My gosh, that's Tim! Oh, my word. That is unbelievable. But that's him! Wow."

Boyette and other University of California system colleagues said they knew him as a cheerful health benefits actuary and consultant for Deloitte in San Francisco who was contracted to work in the office of the system's president during the mid-2000s.

They described him as smart, articulate, kind and very likable.

"The thing I loved about him was that he could relate to everybody. Just a very nice personality," Boyette said.

Stephanie Rosh, a retired insurance manager at UC, worked with O'Beirne for years. She called him a leader and considered him a friend.

"He is very smart," she said. "Always had a wry sense of humor. Always joking." And when the staff was tired, "he might take the whole team out after work. A team player."

Neighbors in Daly City, California, also knew him as "Tim" and described him as a quiet man who kept to himself but was always pleasant and never left the house without wearing his San Francisco Giants cap.

Hughes was apprehended after a passport fraud investigation, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations said.

He told authorities after his capture 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.

It's unclear if he had an attorney who could comment on his behalf.

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