Tom Smart, Deseret News
Col. Linda Medler of the 75th Air Base Wing explains the return of missing M-16 rifles at Hill Air Force Base. Officials want whoever found and returned the guns to confess and face possible charges.

ROY — Hill Air Force Base's tough year got a little better Friday with the return of a missing box of 12 M-16s, but security officials are still looking for the man who picked up the wayward weapons off of a road on base Tuesday.

"It's a great day at Hill Air Force Base," said Col. Linda Medler, commander of the 75th Air Base Wing.

Medler said an investigation is ongoing into who took the plastic green box containing the weapons, which fell from the back of a Humvee being driven by members of the Oklahoma-based 729th Air Control Squadron. Any possible disciplinary action is on hold back in Oklahoma.

"We can't say anything about that yet because it's still under investigation," said 729th spokeswoman 2nd Lt. Kinder Blacke. She said an official at her base assured a mistake like Tuesday's won't happen again.

Hill officials said someone from the 729th did not secure the tail-gate on a Humvee while transporting the weapons on base after a training exercise. Several people reported to security officers at the Hill gate in Roy that they had seen the box in the road. Some had seen a middle-aged man pick up the box and put it in his car.

At about 5:45 a.m. Friday, Hill security officials received an anonymous phone call from a man who said he took the weapons and had returned them to a usually unattended area on base where horses are kept. All of the weapons, their components, the box and a letter of apology were found behind a horse trailer.

Hill Security Forces Commander Maj. Shannon Smith said the individual who kept the rifles for over two days acted on a "crime of opportunity" and likely held on to the weapons while trying to decide what to do with them. He said procedures for weapons transferring at Hill are "sound" and that Tuesday's mishap was a simple mistake, noting that members of the 729th "scoured" the base in search of the M-16s.

Smith and Medler still want the person, believed to be one of thousands of civilians who work on the base, to come forward and face possible charges of illegally possessing automatic weapons. Medler said the man probably has base credentials and a valid ID badge, meaning there was no cause to search his vehicle as he re-entered the base with the box of weapons in his car.

"We'll be expending a significant amount of resources to find the individual," Medler said.

She praised Hill for being one of the best Air Force bases in the country, despite missteps this year that have included an F-16 firing on a vehicle at the Utah Test and Training Range and missile components being shipped to Taiwan instead of helicopter batteries.

"Yes, we've had some isolated incidents," Medler said. "I think the most important thing to do is learn from our mistakes. We will make improvements and continue to move forward."

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