Family Disputes Value of 'Area 51' Property Seized by Air Force

The Groom Mine Mill site was destroyed by a fireball in 1954. Photo courtesy of Joe Sheahan
The Groom Mine Mill site was destroyed by a fireball in 1954. Photo courtesy of Joe Sheahan

It was June 23, 1954, when the grandparents of Joe Sheahan were sitting down to lunch after working hours in their ore-processing mine mill in Groom Lake Valley, Nevada.

There was a streaking whistle, then a huge explosion. Out of nowhere, a fireball had hit and the mill burst into flames.

It was only the first of what would be a slew of problems the Sheahans would endure for decades with the U.S. government, specifically the Air Force, according to Joe Sheahan, a plaintiff in his family's case against the service.

The Sheahans, whose ancestors have been in the area since 1889, wanted to keep the property, known as Groom Mine, but the Air Force laid claim.

The property sits just six miles outside Area 51, a remote area detached from Edwards Air Force Base that the service uses for testing and training on the U-2 Dragon Lady, for example.

The Air Force valued the property at $333,000.

The Sheahans were first offered $2.4 million, which they rejected. In 2015, the Air Force came back with a $5.2 million "take it or leave it" offer, which also stipulated the government would pursue condemning the property should they not accept, Sheahan said.

The Sheahans again declined.

"After exhausting all reasonable efforts to negotiate a sale and the landowners' rejection of the Air Force's offers, the Air Force requested the Department of Justice file a condemnation action in Federal District Court," Jennifer Miller, a member of the senior executive service of the deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force office for installations, said in a statement reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

On Sept. 10, 2015, a federal district court judge ruled the government could seize the property.

Fast forward to Oct. 21, when it was announced the 400-acre property -- once the only privately held property in the Groom Lake Valley -- was appraised for much more than the Air Force says it's worth -- at least 13,113 percent more, say three real-estate appraisers retained by the law firm Kermitt L. Waters, which represents the family.

"Several highly qualified experts recently visited the property and provided thoroughly detailed and well-supported reports valuing the Groom Mine Property between $44 million and $116 million," the law firm said in a statement. "One expert opines that, in removing the Sheahans from their property, the USAF stands to gain between $444 million to $2 billion per year, the amount it cost them to shut down operations while the family visited their property."

"As of September 2015, the federal government owns that property. But now the sole remaining issue is the just compensation, which the Sheahan family are entitled to," said James Leavitt, attorney for the Sheahan family, in an interview.

Leavitt said he expects a trial to start next summer.

The Air Force on Tuesday said it was "unable to comment on ongoing litigation" and deferred to the Justice Department, spokeswoman Laura McAndrews said in an email.

The Air Force can go onto the property, Leavitt said, "because it's theirs," but "to our knowledge, there has not been much encroachment." Many of the family's personal belongings remain on the property.

There are many items the Sheahans left behind: old mining equipment, tools, vehicles, about "130 years' worth of our family history sitting on the property," Sheahan said.

"We have never once gave up our right to access, own, use or enjoy our property in any way," Joe Sheahan said in a telephone interview with on Tuesday.

The Sheahan family’s assets include six patented mining claims to certain mineral rights -- mineral rights deemed private property.

"We didn't parachute into the Air Force's backyard," he said, "they parachuted into our backyard. We were willing to sell, we expressed that, but instead, they dropped a condemnation bomb on us."

Sheahan also touted the family's willingness to serve, citing his father's Army service in the Philippines during World War II, and his brother's 20-plus year Army service as an AH-64 Apache helicopter pilot.

"My family are true patriots. My family believes in this country. And that's what's a little bit disheartening," he said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

Story Continues
Air Force Topics