SUNSPOT, New Mexico – Otero County Sheriff Benny House told ABC-7’s New Mexico Mobile Newsroom Monday he was infuriated at the way the FBI handled the sudden and mysterious closure of the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico.
“I think it’s chicken shit the way the FBI handled it. I have a responsibility to protect my citizens,” said House, “I think it’s paramount that we know what the threat is so we can provide safety.”
The observatory is located 17 miles from Cloudcroft, New Mexico. The facility, and the Sunspot Post Office, located on observatory property, were suddenly closed on Thursday September 6, 2018. The staff at the post office was relocated to the post office in Cloudcroft during the closure.
On Sunday, September 16, 2018, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) announced it was reopening the facilities.
AURA, the agency that runs the observatory, said in a news release the observatory was closed as a precautionary measure while the FBI investigated suspected criminal activity. “During this time, we became concerned that a suspect in the investigation potentially posed a threat to the safety of local staff and residents. For this reason, AURA temporarily vacated the facility and ceased science activities at this location. The decision to vacate was based on the logistical challenges associated with protecting personnel at such a remote location, and the need for expeditious response to the potential threat,” AURA said in a news release.
ABC-7 has reached out to AURA and the FBI for additional information on the alleged criminal activity and the suspect in question. AURA has still not returned any of the numerous phone calls made.
Frank Fisher, the New Mexico FBI Public Affairs Officer, Albuquerque Division, did return one of our phone calls today. In the very brief call, he declined to answer any of the questions that we asked regarding the ‘dangerous suspect’, and would not respond to the Otero County Sheriffs statements regarding the FBI investigation. Fisher told us to refer back to the AURA statement, and quickly hung up the phone.
During the closure, ABC-7 reached out to professors at NMSU, who conduct research at the facility, and the U.S. Postal Service. Both said they were not told why the observatory was closed.
Sheriff House told ABC-7 he had not seen AURA’s news release until an ABC-7 reporter showed it to him.
House is demanding answers. “Is there a bomb threat? Is there an active shooter? Is it chemical? We need to know so we know what kind of man power to send up there, and with out knowing, it’s dangerous for everybody,” House said, “We have a duty to protect and we can’t protect them if we don’t know what is going on.”
House said he reached out to the FBI repeatedly and was kept in the dark. “We’ve asked and asked (the FBI) and they will not tell us anything,” the sheriff said.