Federal prosecutors formally dropped charges this month against an amateur astronomer who exposed a buried surveillance network surrounding the Air Force's mysterious "Area 51" air base in Nevada.
Chuck Clark, 58, was charged in 2003 with a single count of malicious interference with a communications system used for the national defense, after prosecutors held him responsible for the disappearance of one of the wireless motion sensors buried beneath the desert land surrounding the facility.
In a deal with the government last January, Clark agreed to enter a one-year term of "pretrial diversion" - a kind of probation - and to either locate and return the lost device, or make financial restitution to the Air Force. "He paid for the missing sensor, and complied with the conditions of his pretrial diversion and the case was dismissed," says Natalie Collins, a spokesperson for the US Attorney's Office in Las Vegas.
Clark was already known to Area 51 buffs as an expert on the spot the government calls the "operating location near Groom Lake, Nevada," when, in 2003, he discovered an electronic device packed in a rugged case and buried in the desert, given away only by a slender wisp of an antenna poking through the dirt.
Along with fellow base-watcher Joerg Arnu, Clark began mapping the sensors, using a handheld frequency counter to sniff out their tell-tale radio transmissions, Arnu said in an interview last year. Together they exhumed as many as 40 of the boxes, noted their unique three-digit codes, then reburied and tested them, said Arnu.
The sensors - an estimated 75 to 100 of them in all - were marked "U.S. Government Property." In some cases they were planted miles outside Groom Lake's fence line on public land used by hikers and photographers, as well as the occasional tourist hoping for a Close Encounter.
On 12 March, 2003 one of the sensors went missing, according to the government. FBI and Air Force agents descended on Clark's trailer home in tiny Rachel, Nevada - 100 miles north of Las Vegas along the Extraterrestrial Highway - and prosecutors later filed the felony charge against Clark. As part of the deal settling the case, Clark was barred from interfering with any of the sensors or otherwise breaking the law, and was obligated to keep the court apprised of his whereabouts during his year of supervision.
Shrouded in official secrecy, the Groom Lake facility has become a cultural touchstone for UFO mythology. But the base is generally believed to be dedicated to the more terrestrial mission of testing classified aircraft.
Clark's emancipation from government scrutiny comes well in time for Area 51's unofficial 50th anniversary campout, planned for Memorial Day weekend, and likely to draw tourists, UFOlogists, and exotic aircraft buffs from all over. They'll celebrate with "a campfire with live music" outside the base's main gate, according to the event website. "Be sure to respect the Area 51 boundaries," the site suggests. "If you see the warning signs you have gone too far."