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Man in child porn case that closed Sunspot observatory indicted

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)

A man linked to a child pornography investigation that sparked the mysterious closure of a solar observatory in New Mexico two years ago has been indicted.

Court documents show that a grand jury last month indicted former janitor Joshua Lee Cope on three child pornography counts stemming from an investigation in 2018 at the Sunspot Solar Observatory.

The mountaintop observatory in Sunspot closed for 11 days in 2018, but the research association that manages it has said only that an unspecified security issue was the reason for the closure.

According to court documents, Cope, 32, was indicted on one count of distribution of visual medium of sexual exploitation of children and two counts of possession of visual medium of sexual exploitation of children under 13.

Cope’s attorney, Lauren Elizabeth Anne Truitt, did not immediately return a phone message.

In 2018, the sudden closure of the observatory generated national attention as fans of nearby Roswell’s longstanding rumors about UFOs suggested the shuttering had to do with the spotting of alien life.

Later, an FBI search warrant affidavit said agents tracked wireless signals used to access child porn at the observatory.

The search warrant filed in federal court in Las Cruces said the facility’s chief observer, who was not identified, told FBI agents he found a laptop computer with child pornography several months earlier, but did not immediately report the discovery to authorities because he was “distracted” by an unspecified urgent issue at the observatory.

The search warrant provided to a judge the justifications for agents to search computers, cellphones or tablets owned by Cope and the house trailer where he lives.

After Cope could not find his laptop, the court documents said, he began to act frantically and told the chief observer that there was a “serial killer in the area, and that he was fearful that the killer might enter the facility and execute someone.”

The observatory closed, without consulting FBI agents, after Cope’s comments about the serial killer and his erratic behavior, the warrant said.

The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, the group that manages the site under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation, declined comment on the details about the observatory in the court documents.

The Sunspot Solar Observatory was established in 1947 atop Sacramento Peak in Lincoln National Forest and overlooks the Tularosa Basin – an expanse of desert that includes the city of Alamogordo, Holloman Air Force Base, White Sands Missile Range, White Sands National Park and the site of the world’s first atomic bomb test.

The observatory was built by the U.S. Air Force. After several years of operation, it was transferred to the National Solar Observatory, which is part of the National Science Foundation.

Data from observations done at Sunspot is sent to New Mexico State University servers and can be used by researchers around the world.

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