wtf

New Mexico Observatory Closed Because of Child Porn Investigation, Not Aliens

By Jennings Brown on at

After weeks of suspicion about the mysterious closure of the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico, unsealed FBI records have provided an explanation: a child porn investigation.

The observatory at Sacramento Peak was suddenly closed and evacuated on 6 September because of a “security threat.” The organisation that runs the facility—Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy—and the FBI would not provide a public explanation of the threat. The lack of transparency surrounding the closure of a space research facility only 130 miles southwest of Roswell, New Mexico, fuelled public speculation that the observatory was hiding military testing or a discovery of extraterrestrial life.

The observatory re-opened on Monday, along with an explanatory statement from AURA that the organisation “has been cooperating with an on-going law enforcement investigation of criminal activity that occurred at Sacramento Peak.”

Now we finally know what criminal activity is being investigated.

Reuters first reported on Wednesday evening that federal court documents showed the FBI has been investigating a janitor reportedly suspected of viewing and sharing child porn. Included in the records is an application for a search warrant for the suspect’s home.

The search warrant shows that FBI agents found three IP addresses belonging to the observatory were being used to download and distribute hundreds of child porn files.

According to the documents, the observatory’s chief observer reportedly informed his superior when he discovered a black Lenovo laptop with concerning material on it. The superior then alerted the FBI who narrowed down the suspect list and then found that only one of those suspects’ timelines lined up with the suspicious online activity, court documents show. Additionally, the chief observer reported seeing the laptop near cleaning supplies.

After FBI seized the computer, the suspect reportedly began expressing concern about loose security and said he was worried that someone was entering the facility at night and stealing internet service and toilet roll.

The janitor reportedly said people were taking his belongs and told the chief observer something along the lines of, “I should be able to throw a laptop down in a room and not have to worry about someone stealing it,” according to the search warrant. The chief observer reported to authorities that the janitor became frantic and began making alarming comments, suggesting “it was only a matter of time before the facility ‘got hit’ due to its location,” and saying “he believed there was a serial killer in the area, and that he was fearful that the killer might enter the facility and execute someone.”

The chief observer became concerned for his personal safety. Based on the circumstances and advisement from the FBI, the US National Science Foundation and the National Solar Observatory decided to evacuate and close the facility.

Frank Fisher, public affairs officer at FBI’s Albuquerque Division, told Gizmodo the investigation is ongoing. A spokesperson for AURA said the organisation would not comment on an ongoing investigation.

On 14 September, agents searched the suspect’s home and seized five laptops, three phones, an iPad, and several flash drives and hard drives. According to Reuters, the suspect has not yet been arrested and charges have not been filed. [Reuters]