'Mysterious' Closure Of Solar Observatory Was Due To Child Porn On Janitor's Computer

September 25, 2018
By: Catherine Townsend

Sunspot Solar Observatory

Photo by: Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

Sunspot Solar Observatory

LAS CRUCES, NM —The FBI has closed a solar observatory in the mountains of southern New Mexico after the agency opened a child pornography investigation involving a janitor’s computer.

The search warrant provided to a judge allowed federal access to cell phones or tablets owned by 30-year-old Joshua Lee Cope, who works as a janitor at the Sunspot Solar Observatory. The warrant also allowed agents access to the trailer home where he lives on his parent’s property in La Luz.

Agents centered in on Cope after tracking wireless signals used to access child porn to the observatory, according to an FBI search warrant affidavit. The search warrant stated that the facility’s chief observer, who was not named, told FBI agents in August that he had found a laptop computer with child pornography several months earlier. He said that he did not immediately call the authorities because he was “distracted” by another issue at work. Agents seized Cope’s laptop at work on August 21, according to court documents.

The Sunspot Solar Observatory, which was established in 1947 and collects data used by scientists and researchers around the world who study the sun, was evacuated and closed from September 6 to September 17. Over a dozen local residents were also evacuated. At the time, the management stated that an unspecified security issue caused the closure.

The lack of information resulted in internet speculation and conspiracy theories. The observatory closure was attributed to various causes such as UFOs, a chemical leak, or even connection to President Trump’s Space Force.

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.” Cope’s comments about a serial killer and his erratic behavior caused management to close the facility, according to the warrant.

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, citing the ongoing investigation.

Observatory director James McAteer stated: “There’s no panic. We’re ready to get started so we can start doing great science again.”

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