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A year after Sunspot saga, life is nearly back to normal

The Richard B. Dunn solar telescope at the National Solar Observatory on Sacramento Peak in Sunspot. (Nick Pappas/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

It’s been a year since eyes from around Earth – and perhaps even farther – focused in on the Sunspot Solar Observatory in southern New Mexico.

Officials had shut down the astronomical observatory high in the Sacramentos without warning on Sept. 6, 2018, evacuating it, along with a nearby post office and homes in the speck of a community – a hush-hush happening that hatched international headlines, and fed message boards with conspiracy theories and whispers about little green men.

It wasn’t until after what turned out to be a 10-day closure that federal court filings shed some light on the Sunspot Incident: law enforcement had zeroed in on an observatory janitor who was allegedly accessing child porn, and the closure was prompted by the custodian making veiled threats against his coworkers.

Now, the FBI is essentially saying “case closed.”

FBI spokesman Frank Fisher told the Journal in April and reaffirmed recently that the case, which he called “investigative in nature,” had been shut.

“The investigation concluded without the filing of criminal charges,” Fisher said.

As for those working at the Sunspot Solar Observatory, Director James McAteer said the site is “as good as it’s ever been.”

“That little stoppage put us three weeks back,” he said on Thursday, “but we definitely caught up.”

Since last year, McAteer said the observatory has done the best prediction of a solar eclipse to date and is looking forward to its 50th anniversary celebration on Oct. 12.

The National Solar Observatory in Sunspot was thrust into the spotlight on Sept. 6, 2018, when it was evacuated with the facility’s website citing “unforeseen circumstances” – an unclear explanation that only spurred speculation. (Source: National Solar Observatory)

Although the closure had nothing to do with finding alien life, McAteer said, given the vastness of space, it’s only a matter of time.

“That will be a big moment for human society, when it turns from an answer of ‘mathematically, it’s bound to happen’ into an answer of ‘there it is,’ ” he said.

For those around Sunspot, the hub-bub was short-lived, though memorable.

“This is a very quiet town. This was big news here, just because not a lot happens,” said Laura Rabon, spokeswoman for Lincoln National Forest.

The spotlight was shown on the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot on Sept. 6, 2018, when it was evacuated with the facility’s website citing “unforeseen circumstances” – an unclear explanation that only spurred speculation.

Nobody would talk about it on the record as local gossip buzzed of mysterious helicopters and a swarm of vehicles sent by unknown agencies to the observatory.

At the time, a U.S. Postal Service spokesman said officials with some agency – he didn’t know which – had walked into the post office and told the clerk to evacuate.

After nearly two weeks of silence, the facility reopened Sept. 17 without any clarification on what caused the closure in the first place – that is, until information was gleaned from a federal search warrant affidavit.

It turned out the FBI had seized a laptop at the observatory after linking it to child porn and its owner – a janitor at the facility – began to act increasingly strangely, according to the court document.

Outlandish claims of missing supplies morphed into “lax security” at the facility and, eventually, talk of a serial killer who might “enter the facility and execute someone.”

That’s when the National Science Foundation, National Solar Observatory and the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy – which oversee the observatory – ordered the evacuation.

“Sunspot is now open, and we’re ready to show you all the great science and public outreach we do at this fantastic facility!” the site’s website boasted soon after it reopened.

Rabon, the Lincoln National Forest spokeswoman, laughed off the involvement of little green men, but said the hype was still a “shock” for the small community.

“I think people didn’t expect the conspiracy theories to go as far as they did,” she said. “Everybody was doing the, sort of, ‘What if this was real?’ But not in any sort of panicked way.”

Brad Mottern, who works the front office at Lincoln National Forest, said a few dozen visitors came in asking about Sunspot, which was unusual.

“It’s not like Disneyworld or anything,” he explained.

Still, those interested tried to speculate with Mottern, with possibilities ranging from “Men in Black” and the sun exploding to aliens and national security. Often, they would ask if Mottern “knew anything.”

“I just nod and smile, that’s three-quarters of my job,” he said.

Mottern directed many of the curious minds to the newspaper articles and websites, but that wasn’t always enough.

“We definitely had people asking questions, like, ‘Oh, do you know more than what’s being let on?’ ” Rabon said. “… We didn’t.”

Meredith Langford, a waitress at Big Daddy’s Diner in nearby Cloudcroft, said the closure and conspiracy theories that followed were a “little overboard” for her.

“We did have people that came in and asked about it, but, I mean, it’s silly,” she said with a laugh. “It’s just kind of weird.”

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