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Sunspot observatory closure caused by child porn investigation

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the NSF, NSO and AURA decided to evacuate the observatory without advisement or assistance from the FBI.

Mystery solved.

Authorities say it wasn’t aliens, but a janitor’s unsavory tastes that ultimately led to the closure of an observatory in southern New Mexico.

The Sunspot Observatory was evacuated when that same janitor made veiled threats against the facility after federal agents seized a laptop he used to access child pornography.

One of the solar telescopes at Sunspot Observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico. (Nick Pappas/Albuquerque Journal)

The closure on Sept. 6 sparked international attention since authorities refused to release any details, while news outlets and conspiracy theorists filled in the blanks with rumors of geomagnetic storms, alien sightings and apocalyptic asteroids.

According to a search warrant filed in U.S. District Court in Las Cruces, the FBI began investigating after a wireless signal at the observatory, located on Sacramento Peak in the Lincoln National Forest, accessed child porn multiple times since January.

During an interview on Aug. 21, the facility’s chief observer told agents he had found a running laptop with child porn on it in an empty office several months before.

Agents say the chief observer believed the laptop belonged to a research student and didn’t report it at the time because he was “distracted by an urgent matter within the facility.”

The chief observer told agents that only one person had access to the facility around the time of the child porn being accessed: a janitor who started working at the facility a year ago and cleans for a couple of hours a day. The janitor’s parents own the janitorial contract for the observatory.

Agents say the janitor has a key and “unlimited access” to the building.

According to the search warrant, agents seized the laptop.

Agents say that when the janitor returned the next morning, unaware of the seizure, he claimed to be “missing some cleaning supplies” and asked if anyone had been in the office.

The chief observer told agents the janitor began complaining about “lax security” at the facility and claimed someone was breaking into the facility at night to steal internet service and toilet paper.

As time went on, agents say the janitor’s actions grew increasingly “frantic” and he continually approached the chief observer with questions and comments about missing items.

“(The janitor) had continued to look feverishly through the facility and continued to make comments about the lax security,” an agent wrote in the search warrant.

Agents say the janitor mentioned that decoy security cameras “were a joke” and it was only “a matter of time” until the facility “got hit.”

The agencies that oversee the observatory, National Science Foundation, National Solar Observatory and Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, decided to evacuate and close the facility after the janitor spoke of a serial killer in the area and was fearful that the killer might “enter the facility and execute someone.”

While authorities maintain their silence, the observatory reopened Monday.

“Sunspot is now open, and we’re ready to show you all the great science and public outreach we do at this fantastic facility!” says a statement on the facility’s website.

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