Before he mysteriously disappeared and landed on the Air Force Most Wanted list, Capt. William Howard Hughes Jr. phoned home to tell his mother and father that he was going to the Netherlands.

It was July 17, 1983, and the Air Force was sending Hughes overseas on a mission to help NATO test aircraft surveillance systems.

The 33-year-old airman, who worked as a lead surveillance analyst on a base in New Mexico, had a top secret security clearance, according to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.

He told his parents he was supposed to come back from the Netherlands on Aug. 1. But no one ever saw him again.

In the days and weeks after he failed to report for duty, investigators found his car at the Albuquerque International Airport. Inside his townhouse they discovered a to-do list and a list of books Hughes planned to read upon his return.

Finally, they obtained surveillance video that captured him withdrawing more than $28,000 from 19 different banks in the Albuquerque area on July 22. That led investigators to theorize he returned from the Netherlands early and then vanished.

His family feared that he had been abducted. Others speculated that he had defected – possibly to the Soviets – with the highly classified information, a notion that fomented conspiracy theories for years.

His sister, Christine Hughes, maintained that her brother would never defect or disappear without leaving a note, she said in 1984. That would be “totally out of character for the Bill we knew,” she said. “We do not feel he disappeared voluntarily.”

As it turns out, it appears to be exactly what Hughes did.

Last week, nearly 35 years later, the Air Force finally found Hughes living in California under the fictitious name “Barry O’Beirne.” Hughes was arrested at his residence without incident last Wednesday on charges of desertion, the Air Force said Thursday.

The U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service caught on to Hughes’s whereabouts during a passport fraud investigation, leading them to the man named O’Beirne.

When investigators confronted him about “inconsistencies about his identity,” the man confessed that his real name was William Howard Hughes Jr. and that he deserted the Air Force in 1983, according to the Office of Special Investigations.

The reason, he said, was because he was “depressed about being in the Air Force” – so he left, created a fictitious identity in California and never came back, investigators said.

Hughes faces up to five years of confinement, forfeiture of all pay and dishonorable discharge from the Air Force.