However, after just 2km, He pulled into the Port of Long Beach. Then, he used a Transportation Safety Administration pass — a badge he carried for his Bay Bridge repair assignment — to swiftly get through port security.
The agents caught up as the vehicle drew near a red and white cargo ship flying a Chinese flag. Stenciled on the mast were the letters ZPMC.
This was the same company with the Bay Bridge repair contract to which He had been assigned by the California transit agency. A coincidence? The agents could not be sure.
HSI agents stopped He and his friend as they approached the ship captain. An agent opened the trunk. Stuffed inside a tub of Similac infant formula, authorities found 200 radiation-hardened Aeroflex microchips.
The agents say the captain told them that he expected to receive “household goods” and other consumer purchases from He for delivery to friends in China. The captain and He’s driving companion were permitted to leave. He was handcuffed.
Under questioning, He told the agents that he had started his Oakland business at the behest of a Shanghai electronics broker who promised to reward him with a condominium in China for his assistance.
In August, more than five years after Aeroflex admitted wrongdoing, the State Department announced an US$8 million fine for the company’s 2003 to 2008 satellite microchip shipments to China. If Aeroflex completes remedial measures, such as training employees to follow rules the company already should have been following, half of the fine will be suspended.
In September, He pleaded guilty in federal court in Colorado.
Federal guidelines call for a sentence of 46 to 57 months.
In a court filing, his lawyer disputed the government’s assertion that He knew the rad-chips were destined for use by the Chinese government.
Assistant federal defender Robert Pepin said He believed they would be used for commercial mining satellites.
Pepin said He deserves a sentence of no more than 24 months, adding that He faces certain deportation when his sentence concludes, and potential separation from his children, who are US-born citizens.
Despite the scope of the investigation, no one else was charged. The others in the suspected network — the ship captain, the Shanghai broker, the traveling partner and another Oakland suspect — were not arrested.
The fate of the first shipment of 112 radiation-hardened chips — the ones that got away -— is unknown. US officials strongly suspect they are either in China or orbiting the Earth aboard one of Beijing’s satellites.