STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - A U.S. Air Force deserter who has lived secretly in Sweden since 1984 has revealed his identity and contacted his family in the United States who were overwhelmed to hear he was still alive, a Swedish newspaper reported at the weekend.
Dagens Nyheter said David Hemler had deserted aged 21 while serving at a U.S. Air Force base in Germany, after getting involved with a pacifist church and becoming disillusioned with the policies of former President Ronald Reagan.
He hitchhiked via Denmark to Sweden where he settled down, living under an assumed name for the last 28 years and not revealing his true identity to anyone.
“I never planned on not telling the truth in the beginning. I intended to come to Sweden until I felt better (after his experience in the airforce), I expected a week or so,” Hemler told the newspaper in a video on its website.
Now aged 49, he is married to a woman from Thailand, has three children and works for a Swedish government agency, but would not let the newspaper print his assumed name.
After his desertion, he became one of the U.S. Air Force’s eight most wanted fugitives, according to the newspaper, and had expected at any time to be arrested by military police with both Interpol and Europol looking for him.
Hemler told the newspaper he had missed his parents after he deserted but went on to have a child and had not wanted to be separated from her.
He had decided to come forward after his third daughter turned two and could go to day care, so his wife would be better able to cope if he was arrested.
He first contacted his U.S. family four weeks ago, speaking to his brother Thomas who was in Massachusetts at the time on a business trip.
“I heard immediately it was David, even if he had a strange European accent after all these years,” Thomas Hemler, who lives in New Jersey, was quoted on Sunday as saying.
He said he had asked questions to confirm the man was indeed his brother David. Members of his family in the United States are now planning to visit him in Sweden.
The website of the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations lists Hemler, who was born in Pennsylvania, as having deserted on February 10, 1984 from the 6913th Electronic Security Squadron in Augsburg, Germany.
Its Air Force Fugitives page shows a photo of Hemler as a young man, and a photo digitally enhanced to show how he might look aged 47.
The newspaper said Hemler was registered in Sweden as a citizen of an unknown country who was born in Zurich.
His lawyer, Emma Persson, told Reuters he had approached her firm for legal advice about a month ago.
“My opinion is that he will not lose his permanent residence permit in Sweden, it is very unlikely,” she said. She also thought it unlikely he would be extradited to the United States.
A U.S. embassy spokesman declined to comment on the case.
“My dream scenario is that the responsible authorities realize I have already been punished quite severely for my actions ... I have been living 28 years in lies,” Hemler said.
Reporting by Patrick Lannin; Editing by Sophie Hares