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Local veteran shares the true secret of Area 51

In September, an invasion of alien enthusiasts is expected to descend on the desert outside Area 51.

“Storm Area 51” started as a joke on Facebook, with more than two million people saying they wanted to join in an effort to storm the gates and enter the top-secret Air Force base in rural Nevada to see if decades of conspiracy theories about alien bodies and spacecraft hidden there are true.

The purpose of the gathering has since been changed into an alien-themed music festival, Alienstock, and it’s unclear how many Facebook users are genuinely planning to show up.

In the unlikely event that any of the attendees did make it onto the base, Roseburg resident Daryl Strickland thinks he has a pretty good idea what they might find there.

That’s because he worked at Area 51 during the 1960s.

Strickland had wanted to be a fighter pilot all his life. So on Christmas vacation in his senior year of high school, he hitchhiked from Rock Springs, Wyoming to Ogden, Utah, so he could enlist in the Air Force. It was January 1953.

He was rejected as a pilot for health reasons. But he did become an expert on airborne radar and missile systems. His first assignment was in Tucson, Arizona, where he repaired radar on planes and adjusted computers so the pilots would be able to lock on bombers and shoot them down.

He spent part of his service in Iceland, and then returned to Arizona, this time in Yuma. At that point, he was told he couldn’t go back overseas because he had just 87 days left.

But he wasn’t ready to stop working on military planes.

“So I hitchhiked to L.A. and went to see Hughes Aircraft Company because I had been working on their equipment for the last four years. And they said sure, when you get discharged come back and you can go to work for us,” he said.

It was in 1966 and 1967 that Hughes, a contractor with the Air Force, sent Strickland to the government’s secret military base at Area 51.

Although he was a civilian, he said he had the run of the place.

He never saw any aliens or alien space ships.

What he did see, and work on, was top-secret experimental aircraft. His job was to work on the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane.

This plane could fly at 2,000 mph. It would take off from Area 51, fly to Montana, refuel there, go about 200 miles into Canada, fly down the Atlantic Ocean and then to communist Cuba, take pictures of the Russian missile systems there and fly back up through Texas and Arizona into Nevada. All in four and a half hours.

Strickland and his coworkers were tasked with converting the spy plane, which was armed only with cameras. They put missiles and a radar system on it, turning it into the Interceptor.

The secrecy imposed on those who worked at Area 51 was severe.

“We were not allowed to go out to a bar, or into the community without four of us going together,” he said.

They had to watch each other, to be sure no one was divulging secrets to the Russians.

“You were taught right at the beginning that it was 45 years in prison if you were caught giving information. So this was really serious,” he said.

Strickland thinks it was the secrecy shrouding the place that led to conspiracy theories that aliens were being held there. The secrecy came from fear the Russians would figure out what they were accomplishing there.

Though there were no restrictions on where he could go on the base, there was a culture in which people didn’t talk to each other.

“It was just one of those things that they said when we first were going to go there. You keep to yourself, you don’t intermingle because everybody needs to be as quiet as they can about it. The less you know, the less you can say to somebody if they’ve got you,” he said.

Ultimately the government decided the Interceptor project was too expensive and shut it down.

Hughes sent Strickland to Turkey, where he worked on a synchronous satellite system he said allowed the country’s leaders in Washington, D.C. to follow was happening in Vietnam and micromanage the war there.

Also in Turkey, he met his wife Barbara, who was a nurse, an Air Force captain who would have outranked him had he still been in the service. His highest rank had been Airman First Class.

She was working in an apartment complex in Ankara, Turkey’s capital city, that had been converted to a military hospital during World War II.

Barbara Strickland said she was able to continue serving after they got married, but not once their son David was born in the delivery room that had once been the apartment’s penthouse.

After more than seven years in Turkey, they returned to the United States, moving to Yoncalla and later to Roseburg. Before retiring, they ran a ranch and a salmon fishing boat. These days, both volunteer at the Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He keeps an eye on veterans exercising at the gym. She helps women veteran patients, sharing information such as when they need to schedule a mammogram.

Daryl Strickland held the secret of his time at Area 51, even from his wife, for more than a decade. Then one day in the 1980s they visited Nevada and he saw a souvenir in an airport gift shop that was a replica of the plane he had worked on. He figured that meant he could finally talk about it.

The government first acknowledged Area 51’s existence in 2013.

Daryl Strickland said he loved his time in the military and working for Hughes. He would do exactly the same thing if he had to live it over again.

“But you’d find out the about the aliens if you did it again,” teased his wife.

“Oh yeah, I might not be around if I tried,” he joked. “The aliens would have got me.”

With all the planets in the universe, Daryl Strickland thinks there have to be some with life on them. He doesn’t think aliens were ever at Area 51, but he wasn’t prepared to say they’ve never visited Earth.

“I haven’t seen any. And we sure haven’t got very far yet. But maybe we will one day, who knows,” he said.

Humans will have to come up with something that moves a lot faster through space if we want to visit the aliens where they live, he said.

“Maybe they’ll come up with it someday. They come up with all kinds of things all the time. And maybe we don’t know about it too. Maybe it’s at Area 51 now,” he said.

Green named the most affordable city in Oregon by SmartAsset

Green was named the No. 1 most affordable location in Oregon to live in by SmartAsset in its 2019 Most Affordable Places in America study.

The study ranks all cities within a given state on overall affordability based on closing costs, real estate taxes, homeowners’ insurance and mortgage rates, said AJ Smith, vice president for financial education at SmartAsset.

Douglas County Commissioner Tom Kress said in an email, “The recent study which found the area of Green, which is considered an urban unincorporated area adjacent to Roseburg in rural Douglas County, as the most affordable place to live in Oregon reaffirms our commitment in continuing to promote Douglas County a great place to live, work and play.”

Green has a population of 7,895 according to Green’s median annual income is $44,643 and its property taxes sit at an average of $1,200, according to the study. The runner up, Baker City, has a median income of $42,000 and its property taxes are around $1,500.

“We release these studies to get people thinking and talking about their finances,” Smith said in an email. “While the results of the study might not apply to everyone in these top 10 cities in Oregon, it can help them contextualize things like how much of their income they are committing to housing expenses.”

SmartAsset has data for affordability in Oregon from 2015. Green was among the top 10 since 2016 and even ranked third on the most affordable list in 2018 before taking the top ranking in 2019.

“One factor that helped Green rise from third to first was its median income rising from $41,021 in the 2018 study to $44,643 in the 2019 edition,” Smith said. “Other top locations like Milton-Freewater, Umatilla and Altamont saw incomes decline in that span, which significantly impacts the affordability calculation.”

Kress said Green is seeing growth in its housing market and business development and is a great place to live.

“The area has pleasant year-around climate with lush vegetation, abundant rural farmland, access to an ever-growing number of local goods and services, and a close proximity to many wonderful outdoor activities; like fishing, hunting, hiking and camping,” Kress said.

The effects of death penalty changes in Douglas County not clear

Douglas County District Attorney Rick Wesenberg and other attorneys have raised concerns about a recent bill passed this year to restrict the death penalty.

After Gov. Kate Brown announced Wednesday plans to call a special session later this year to resolve what she says is an error in the bill, it appears the Oregon Department of Justice has similar concerns.

Under the bill, signed by Brown, only the killing of a child younger than 14, killing two or more in a terrorist act, killing a police officer or if someone with an aggravated murder commits another murder could be eligible for an aggravated murder charge. The bill is set to go into effect on Sept. 29.

Douglas County District Attorney Rick Wesenberg feels the bill disrespects the will of the Oregon voters who passed the death penalty law in 1984 by radically changing what crimes can be prosecuted as aggravated murder.

“It’s really disappointing on multiple levels,” Wesenberg said. “What this law does is defacto, eliminate the death penalty that was enacted by the voters in 1984 by radically changing and narrowing the definition of what constitutes the crime of aggravated murder.”

Wesenberg said the most profound failure of Senate Bill 1013 is that it fails to honor the suffering of the victims of horrendous crimes.

“One of the most horrible and profound things is that you have these families that suffer this most grievous, horrible loss you can have family members slaughtered and taken from you,” Wesenberg said. “Then you go through a court process and then years later you go through the court process again, and yet again, and it’s beyond excruciating for these folks.”

Wesenberg said the issue of whether or not SB 1013 is retroactive is one that could have a large impact on cases already tried in the Douglas County and appeals are filed and without the death penalty option, it will be tougher to get a plea bargain, and more cases will end up going to court.

“Sure, especially until the law gets to a place where it’s more settled, defense attorneys would not be doing their job if they don’t maximize everything they can for their client, so I think it does change the dynamic of the plea agreement,” Wesenberg said.

Dan Bouck with the Umpqua Valley Public Defenders Office in Roseburg, which supplies court-appointed attorneys in Douglas County cases, agreed. Bouck said his office expects to get more of the murder cases that could have been tried as aggravated murder under the current guidelines.

“It would mean more cases would be eligible for our office,” Bouck said. “When you know they’re not going to be using the death penalty, some have figured that out and say well I won’t plead out.”

During legislative hearings, lawmakers said the bill would not apply to previous cases in which offenders had already been sentenced.

However, recently the Oregon Department of Justice said that the law could potentially be applied to the 30 inmates on Oregon’s death row who can still appeal. That means if a death row inmate were granted a new trial on appeal, SB 1013 could bar prosecutors from again seeking a death penalty.

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Cottage Grove, a main proponent of the bill, said he is trying to fix the bill that was not intended to be retroactive.

“I want to get it fixed because that’s not what I told my colleagues and if it’s been misinterpreted or misread, we want to make certain we get it right,” Prozanski said.

Prozanski said his intent was that if you had a person who had their sentence overturned that they would not get the benefit of 1013 because their guilt was ruled constitutional. But if the court said the conviction was being thrown out, he felt that would be a basis for the new law to apply.

The legislature has until Sept. 29 to make the changes before the law goes into effect.

Wesenberg said if that doesn’t get fixed, cases that are sent back for re-sentencing will be subject to the new law.

“What that means in effect is that literally, everything surrounding these cases will be subject to days, weeks, months, even years of litigation,” he said. “So the victims are going to have to live and suffer through these things.”

Prozanski said part of the goal of the bill was to address the cost of carrying out an aggravated murder case.

‘It costs the state about a million dollars more than it does for a life sentence, so those saving could be put back into the criminal justice system,” Prozanski said.

Wesenberg said he doesn’t see how the change in the law could save money.

“Absolutely not, because we’re going to be litigating every single part of this and so the state already pays a tremendous amount of money for indigent defense,” Wesenberg said. “This is not going to save money.”

Wesenberg said his office will not be deterred from pursuing the death penalty sentence if they feel it is justified.

“Our job is, if there is a violation of the law, if it’s aggravated murder and we believe it’s an appropriate case to receive the death penalty, we’re going to do that,” Wesenberg said. “ If their goal was to undue the potential for the death penalty, they were very successful, because that’s what they did. The scope was made intentionally very, very narrow.”

Douglas County has three men on death row, although there were four before one of the sentences was overturned.

Michael Martin McDonald, 68, has been on death row for 35 years for the murder of a Roseburg woman near Yoncalla after he had escaped from the Oregon State Prison. He was sentenced April 8, 1984, and was the second person charged with capital murder in Oregon since the voters reinstated the death penalty in 1984.

Clinton Wendell Cunningham, 51, was sentenced to death on Oct. 27, 1992, for killing a Canadian woman in western Douglas County. He’s been on death row for almost 27 years.

Horacio Alberto Reyes Camarena, 64, has been on death row for 22 years. He was sentenced on Jan. 21, 1997, for murdering one woman and leaving another for dead along highway 101 in western Douglas County.

Jesse Fanus, 39, was sentenced to death in 1999, for the murder Marion Carl of Glide, a highly decorated World War II fighter ace, record-setting test pilot. He was on death row for 13 years before his death penalty sentence was overturned by a Marion County court in 2012.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.