When federal agents kicked in his door one icy morning last November, Joerg Arnu was still asleep. Roused by deafening bangs and shouts, the 60-year-old retired software developer stumbled out of bed to find a crowd of unfamiliar men in military gear standing in his foyer.
One of the half dozen men, he remembers, was armed with a gun. Another was holding a riot shield. “This is the FBI,” one yelled. “Put your hands against the wall!” Less than a minute later, Arnu was being handcuffed and led forcefully outside, dressed only in sweatpants and a T-shirt. His house, located in the remote town of Rachel, Nevada, had been swarmed by police vans. Shivering from a lightly falling snow, he was placed in the back of one of the vehicles, while over a dozen agents from the FBI and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations—the Air Force’s secretive counterintelligence wing—poured into his home. Not long afterwards, agents started asking him questions. One of the first things they wanted to know was: “Are there any booby traps on the property?” To Arnu, it seemed like a strange thing to ask. A retired software developer and self-admitted senior citizen? Did that really sound like somebody who would boobytrap his own house?
Of course, Arnu had one particular hobby that he felt might be of interest to federal investigators: he had spent the last two decades tending to a popular blog about “Area 51,” the remote military base near Rachel that was known for its shroud of mystery and UFO lore. Arnu’s site, Dreamland Resort, regularly posted news about the base—including articles about its alleged connection to “black projects” and other clandestine government operations. When police crashed into his life that wintry day, he suspected it had something to do with this. Still, running a blog wasn’t illegal, and the force with which the government had come down on him seemed unbelievable. Just what exactly were agents looking for what? And what did they think he’d done?
On the same morning of the raid in Rachel, federal law enforcement descended on another property owned by Arnu, a house in Las Vegas, where his girlfriend Linda Hellow was staying at the time. She said that the raid similarly involved 15 to 20 armed agents in riot gear. “I heard and felt a large ‘BOOM,’” said Hellow, who was upstairs when police first entered the residence. “Don’t ask me what I hollered, probably ‘Who the eff are you?’”
After identifying themselves as the FBI, agents quickly escorted her outside in her underwear (she wouldn’t be allowed to dress properly until later, when an agent brought her a pair of pants).
Arnu shared pictures with Gizmodo of the damage caused by the feds as they stormed both residences. The photos clearly showed door frames that had been violently impacted. Agents also tracked mud all over carpeting, broke a desk and a lamp, and left the homes in a state of disarray, according to Arnu. The damages from the raids total approximately $5,000, he said.
The biggest loss that the blogger suffered, however, was the assets that police seized during the raids: approximately $20,000 worth of electronics, according to him. This included five computers, multiple phones, external hard drives, digital cameras, and an expensive drone, among other items.
“I’d really like to have my stuff back,” Arnu said in an interview. “I lost all of the backups. I lost literally all of the information that I had saved on my computers, including tax information, financial information, medical records—all of that is gone and is basically being held hostage by the FBI right now.”
As of this week, it’s been more than two months since the government raided both of Arnu’s properties, but he still hasn’t been charged with a crime. He was served with a search warrant that was missing dozens of pages and gave no reason for the raid; the case records related to the warrant have been sealed, so there’s no way of telling what the point of the search was. He also hasn’t been able to get in touch with the FBI, aside from a letter from the agency’s legal department denying reimbursement for the damage caused during the raids, he said. And, it goes without saying, he never got his stuff back.
“I believe the search, executed with completely unnecessary force by overzealous government agents, was meant as a message to silence the Area 51 research community,” Arnu recently wrote on his website.
The lingering questions around the case have yet to be answered: what were federal agents after when they ransacked his residences in Rachel and Las Vegas? Why did they feel the need to conduct their raids with such force? And what exactly did Arnu do to incur their wrath?
Mystery in the Desert
For decades, Area 51 has been popularly associated with UFO sightings and with extraterrestrial lore. But Arnu doesn’t believe in little green men, and if you peruse Dreamland, you’ll find that he doesn’t think the secretive military base has anything to do with aliens. Instead, the hobbyist researcher says that America’s UFO mythology is little more than a smokescreen to hide the much more mundane reality of what goes on at Area 51: the testing of classified military projects and aircraft.
The UFO craze first “started when Area 51 was first founded in the 1950s for the U2 spy plane project,” Arnu said. “All of a sudden airline pilots would see something way above them, at 80,000 feet or whatever [where the U2 was known to fly]. So that’s when this whole ‘UFO’ story was born as a diversion from what is really going on.”
Arnu said that, over the years, he has met a lot of people who have claimed to have seen something strange in the skies around Rachel. “By seeing how easy it is to misidentify something they see as a ‘UFO,’ I really became a skeptic,” he said. “I came to realize it’s really all about military aviation.”
Other writers and researchers have come to similar conclusions. Journalist Annie Jacobsen’s Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base, tells the story of how—at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and 60s—the CIA used the base to develop new surveillance planes to spy on the Soviets. These included the U-2, as well as “Operation Oxcart,” a program that spawned numerous surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft.
This is where the possible motive for the government’s raids comes in. What the agents were looking for may have been evidence that he had illegally photographed the military base, according to Arnu and others who know him.
According to Hellow, an agent present at the Vegas raid told her: “Your boyfriend took pictures of a military installation—that’s against the law.” In a blog post on Dreamland, Arnu similarly said that all he was told about the investigation was that it was “related to images posted on my Area 51 website.”
Taking an unauthorized picture of a defense installation (such as a military base) is a federal misdemeanor offense—on par with hunting or fishing in a wildlife refuge. It carries with it a punishment of a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail.
However, Arnu maintains that he never broke the law and that the government’s case against him—whatever it is—has zero merit. “I had some photos [on my website] of Area 51 that were about two years old,” said Arnu, which he believes were the reason for the raid. “They were legally obtained. There’s absolutely nothing illegal about them,” he said. “Most of these photos were not taken by me, I just published them [on the site].” He adds that they were “not classified photos” and that they “were not taken from inside the boundary”—that is, the area inside the perimeter of the base that is off-limits to civilians. Arnu says the photos had already been widely circulated on other news websites and TV shows, making it inexplicable why the government would target him and him alone.
A Fishing Expedition?
Without expedient answers from the government, Arnu has taken to calling officials’ raid a “fishing expedition”—an attempt to dig up dirt on him without a concrete basis. He also thinks it was the government’s way of intimidating him into shutting down his blog. In particular, the confiscation of the computer equipment that he uses to operate Dreamland Resort seems—to Arnu—like a naked attempt to shut down the site.
Michael German, a former FBI agent who has been critical of the bureau since leaving it, called Arnu’s case “troubling.” German, who now works as a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, told Gizmodo that it wasn’t unusual for the FBI to conduct an operation like this to “send a message,” and to cow a specific individual or community. That’s particularly disturbing given Arnu’s role as a person involved in media, he added.
“Certainly it [an operation like this] could intimidate other journalists who were writing about these secret government programs. That chilling effect seems to be part of why they would be so aggressive in a case where the level of dangerousness is not clear,” he said. On top of this, German notes that the targeting of Joerg’s computer equipment “raises concerns that the intent may have been to impede his ability to exercise his First Amendment rights.”
Peter S. Merlin, an aviation historian, fellow Area 51 researcher, and colleague of Arnu’s (he occasionally contributes to Dreamland), said the raids seemed designed to discourage Arnu and others from engaging in further Area 51 research. He does not blame the agents who conducted the raids, however, so much as whoever decided to mobilize them.
“It’s almost pointless to get mad at the Air Force for doing this, or even the FBI,” Merlin said. “If someone shoots you in the leg, do you get mad at the gun? No, you get mad at the guy who pulled the trigger. These guys are just a tool and somebody obviously weaponized them because they wanted to send Joerg a message. Somebody doesn’t like what he’s doing.”
The government has continued to be tight-lipped about the episode. Gizmodo reached out multiple times to both the FBI and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations for comment on the November raids. The FBI responded but refused to comment. AFOSI never responded.
While Arnu waits for answers, he’s trying to get on with his life. In addition to a slew of interviews with the press, the blogger has launched a GoFundMe to help pay for the damages inflicted by the raids and to finance his legal expenses (he has now hired a lawyer). He’s also trying to make up for the thousands of dollars of computer equipment that have vanished into government evidence lockers.
“I was treated like a drug dealer or some hardened criminal,” Arnu said during one of our interviews. “I was manhandled. I’m a sixty-year-old guy. There was no reason to bang me against the wall and drag me out of my own home in handcuffs…I just don’t see any reason to treat an unarmed senior citizen that way.”