When Sunspot Observatory shut down unexpectedly because of a security issue, the Internet went wild with ideas about conspiracy theories and aliens. But now, court records are revealing that the FBI’s investigation at Sunspot was actually related to child pornography and possible threats made against the staff. In public court documents, the FBI has accused a janitor, Joshua Cope, of using a laptop to access child pornography through Sunspot’s networks. Cope has not, however, been charged with any crimes and the investigation is ongoing, FBI spokesman Frank Fisher confirmed with The New York Times. Here is what we know so far about Cope and the investigation at Sunspot. You can also read one of the search warrant documents related to the case at the end of Fact 1.
1. Joshua Cope Is Accused by the FBI in Public Court Documents of Owning a Laptop Used to Access Pornography, But He Has Not Been Charged
Public court documents that Heavy obtained from the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico reveal that authorities obtained search warrants for a Lenovo IdeaPad that was connected to the downloading and distribution of pornography via the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot’s wireless network.
According to the affidavit, an FBI agent contacted the National Solar Observatory to let them know that multiple files containing child pornography were seen coming from IP addresses belong to Sunspot. The local public network was disabled as a precaution, but it was later reopened and monitored as an attempt to catch the person. Almost immediately after reopening the network, the traffic was detected again and tracked. The affidavit notes: “In fact, during the time period between August 2, 2018, at approximately 3:00 p.m. MDT and August 6, 2018 at approximately 3:00 p.m. MDT, the CPS database records showed that the above IP address had been offering to participate in the distribution of files containing child pornography.”
Read the details in a screenshot from the affidavit below:
After this, the FBI began tracking who had access to the Observatory and at what times of day. After tracking the times that the host computer was connected to the network, they determined that child pornography was present in the facility almost every day between 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. On August 21, the Chief Observer at Sunspot notified his supervisor that he found a laptop running in an empty office, and had seen it in two other offices by itself over the last few months. The contents on the laptop’s desktop were “not good,” he said.
The story gets more bizarre at this point. According to the affidavit, the Lenovo laptop was found in an office that was only used two or three times a year by a retired professor. The professor asked for his desktop computer to be examined, because it hadn’t been working properly. According to the affidavit: “Under the desk, in the space between the desktop computer’s central processing unit and the wall, the Chief Observer found a Lenovo laptop computer plugged in and running.” The computer had porn on it.
On August 21, the Chief Observer walked into an office that had been empty for several months and found the same laptop in the corner, plugged in and running by itself. According to the affidavit, he determined that out of the only three people who had access to the Observatory in those last 36 hours, only one also had access when child porn was seen accessed at other times too — Joshua Cope, a janitor who had been hired about a year ago.
Joshua Cope has been accused in these public court documents, but he has not been charged. FBI spokesman Frank Fisher confirmed with The New York Times that charges had not been filed and the investigation was ongoing.
You can read the full warrant application for the laptop below or click here to read the document on Scribd if the window below does not work.
2. The FBI’s Affidavit Says that When the Laptop Was Seized, Cope Complained the Next Day about Lax Security and Personal Items No Longer Being Safe
The affidavit accuses Joshua Cope of being the person who had access to the laptop. He is a janitor who was hired about a year ago, and generally arrived to clean around 2 p.m., often offering to lock the facility when he leaves. The affidavit goes on to say that the day after the laptop was seized, Cope arrived the following morning (August 22) and was seen leaving the office where the laptop had been found. He said he had left some cleaning supplies in that office and wanted to know if anyone had been in there. According to the affidavit, Cope later said he thought he saw someone entering the observatory at night to steal the Internet service, and he was concerned about lax security. As a result, he would no longer bring personal items to Sunspot, because too many people knew the passcode and it should be changed. He also said, “I should be able to throw a laptop down in a room and not have to worry about someone stealing it.” You can read the exchange in the affidavit below:
The affidavit accuses Joshua Cope of using the computer to access child pornography based on several facts, including that the activity began months after he gained access to the observatory, and he was the only person whose activity matched the pornography and laptop use.
The United States District Court found that the affidavit provided probable cause for issuing a search warrant and seizing the Lenovo IdeaPad laptop, and a search and seizure warrant was issued on September 6.
A separate application for a search warrant was filed on September 10, seeking to search a home in La Luz, New Mexico for any evidence of child pornography that Cope may have had access to. The application reads that the FBI is investigating Joshua Cope “as a suspect” for using computers and devices at the NSO to view child pornography. You can read the FBI’s complete reasoning for suspecting Cope, as written in the public search warrant application, below.
The application then adds that the FBI also believes Cope transferred child pornography files from the laptop to an external storage device that he maintains at his home. The warrant was granted and the FBI seized three cell phones, five laptops, an iPad, an external hard drive, an internal hard drive, 16 thumb drives, 8 compact flash disks, and 4 SD cards at his home, according to public court records. They also seized a stack of documents and passwords and a PayPal document.
The observatory terminated the contract with Cope’s cleaning company, which was owned by his parents.
3. The Sunspot Observatory Was Shut Down After Threats Were Made Against the Facility
On September 6, the Sunspot Observatory was shut down after “veiled threats” were made against the facility. The Albuquerque Journal says the threats came from the janitor after the laptop was seized, but does not name the janitor in the story. The janitor mentioned that decoy cameras were a “joke” and it was only a matter of time before the facility was hit.
When the janitor said there was a serial killer in the area and he was worried the killer might “enter the facility and execute someone,” the FBI decided to temporarily shut down the facility.
4. AURA Said that Sunspot Was Vacated Because of ‘Logistical Challenges’ with ‘Protecting Personnel’
Everyone was tight-lipped about why the FBI was investigating Sunspot and why they closed down the facility, sparking numerous theories. The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), which manages the facility, attempted to quell some of those theories with a vaguely worded statement on September 16. The statement reads:
On September 6th, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) made the decision to temporarily vacate the Sunspot Solar Observatory at Sacramento Peak, New Mexico as a precautionary measure while addressing a security issue. The facility closed down in an orderly fashion and is now re-opening. The residents that vacated their homes will be returning to the site, and all employees will return to work this week.
AURA has been cooperating with an on-going law enforcement investigation of criminal activity that occurred at Sacramento Peak. 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 determined that moving the small number of on-site staff and residents off the mountain was the most prudent and effective action to ensure their safety.
In light of recent developments in the investigation, we have determined there is no risk to staff, and Sunspot Solar Observatory is transitioning back to regular operations as of September 17th. Given the significant amount of publicity the temporary closure has generated, and the consequent expectation of an unusual number of visitors to the site, we are temporarily engaging a security service while the facility returns to a normal working environment.
We recognize that the lack of communications while the facility was vacated was concerning and frustrating for some. However, our desire to provide additional information had to be balanced against the risk that, if spread at the time, the news would alert the suspect and impede the law enforcement investigation. That was a risk we could not take.”
5. Rumors Began Flying After the Facility Shut Down and Local Law Enforcement Didn’t Know Why
Rumors started when the facility was shut down but local law enforcement didn’t know why, KOB4 reported at the time. Sgt. Jon Emery of the Otero County Sheriff’s Office told KOB4 on September 13 that the FBI hadn’t contacted them and they had no information about what had happened. Otero County Sheriff Benny House also told Alamogordo Daily News that he had no idea what was going on. “But for the FBI to get involved that quick and be so secretive about it, there was a lot of stuff going on up there. There was a Blackhawk helicopter, a bunch of people around antennas and work crews on towers but nobody would tell us anything,” he said.
All anyone knew was that the FBI shut down and evacuated Sunspot on September 6, and it had remained closed.
Some people speculated that the observatory had seen aliens, or perhaps was working on some type of weapon. None of these theories ended up being the truth. What still isn’t known is why a postal office on the same site as Sunspot was also shut down. Rod Spurgeon, USPS spokesperson in the New Mexico area, said the Sunspot shutdown had nothing to do with the post office’s shut down. “Whatever’s occurring has nothing to do with us,” he told Science.
Sunspot Observatory runs a visitors center and daily research activities with the Dunn Telescope. It was originally established in 1947 and is based in Sunspot, New Mexico.