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Home / federal charges

US Navy sailors from LA County, SD ordered detained in spy cases

Two U.S. Navy sailors — one from Monterey Park and another from San Diego — who are accused of taking bribes in exchange for sending sensitive military information to Chinese intelligence officers were ordered detained Tuesday pending trial on federal charges.

Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, 26, also known as Thomas Zhao, had asked the judge to be granted release while awaiting trial. However, U.S. Magistrate Judge Patricia Donahue rejected the request on grounds of flight risk and possible danger to the community or potential witnesses, court papers show.

The Monterey Park resident pleaded not guilty last week in downtown Los Angeles to federal charges of conspiracy and receipt of a bribe by a public official. Zhao was working at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The indictment alleges that Zhao, who held a security clearance, received bribes from a Chinese intelligence officer in exchange for disclosing nonpublic, sensitive military information.

Federal prosecutors contend that beginning in August 2021 and continuing through at least May of this year, Zhao sent U.S. military information, photographs and videos to the Chinese intelligence officer.

In exchange for bribes, Zhao allegedly sent the intelligence officer operational plans for a large-scale U.S. military exercise in the Indo-Pacific Region, detailing the specific location and timing of naval movements, amphibious landings, maritime operations and logistics support, according to the indictment.

He also allegedly photographed electrical diagrams and blueprints for a radar system stationed on a U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan.

Prosecutors contend Zhao obtained and transmitted details about the Navy’s operational security at the Naval Base in Ventura County and on San Clemente Island, including photographs and videos.

The intelligence officer directed Zhao to conceal their relationship and to destroy evidence of the scheme, prosecutors allege.

In exchange for the information Zhao provided — information he accessed as a result of his position within the U.S. Navy — the Chinese intelligence officer paid Zhao nearly $15,000, the indictment alleges.

If convicted of the two counts in the indictment, Zhao would face up to 20 years in federal prison, prosecutors noted.

A second sailor based in San Diego was arrested last week on similar charges, but officials declined to comment on whether the cases are related or if the two seamen allegedly were in contact with the same Chinese intelligence officer. 

San Diego sailor charged with espionage ordered held in custody

Jinchao Wei, 22, also known as Patrick Wei, is accused of selling military secrets to a Chinese intelligence officer will also remain in custody, a judge ruled Tuesday.

Wei is accused of accepting bribes in exchange for information concerning “the defense and weapon capabilities of U.S. Navy ships, potential vulnerabilities of these ships, and information related to ship movement,” according to a grand jury indictment.

Prosecutors allege he also provided the Chinese officer with photographs of military hardware and details about an upcoming maritime warfare exercise involving U.S. Marines.

Wei, who was assigned as a machinist’s mate on the USS Essex, was arrested last Wednesday at Naval Base San Diego as he was arriving for work.

U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman said Wei’s prosecution represents the first time an espionage-related charge has been filed against someone in the Southern District of California.

Wei, who was ordered detained last week, appeared in court Tuesday afternoon for a hearing regarding his custodial status. Defense attorney Jason Conforti said his client would stipulate to remaining in custody for now until he received more evidence from the prosecution.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Fred Sheppard told U.S. Magistrate Judge Michelle Pettit that prosecutors would move to keep Wei detained on grounds of being a flight risk and a danger to the community.

Sheppard argued the information Wei allegedly provided the Chinese officer made him a danger to the community at large and “certainly a danger to the thousands of sailors who are on those ships and transported by those ships.”

The prosecutor said the Chinese officer approached Wei before he was assigned to the Essex and sought information and photographs of ship movements out of San Diego ports.

After Wei was first approached by the Chinese intelligence officer, he allegedly told a fellow sailor he was being recruited by an intelligence agency for “quite obviously (expletive) espionage,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The indictment alleges that beginning last year, Wei transmitted “documents, sketches, plans, notes, and other information” to the handler, who allegedly instructed Wei to destroy any evidence substantiating their relationship. Some of the information he allegedly sent included technical data for the USS Essex and other amphibious assault ships.

On Tuesday, Sheppard said some of that information included details on living conditions aboard the Essex, manuals for its weapons systems and information regarding its onboard communications.

Conforti told the judge Wei would not pose a danger as he no longer has a position with the Navy and now has no access to the information prosecutors allege he provided.

Regarding flight, Sheppard said Wei’s only relative in the United States is his mother, who the prosecutor said was not only aware of Wei’s alleged disclosure of military secrets, but actively supported it.

Sheppard said Wei’s Chinese contact has also extended offers for Wei to travel to China and Wei allegedly had been searching for flights shortly before his arrest.

Both Wei and Zhao allegedly received thousands of dollars for the information they are accused of passing along.

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