A Chinese woman living in Connecticut sought to buy military equipment commonly used to gauge the power of nuclear explosions and export it to her native country, a federal grand jury charged.
Qing Li, 39, first contacted undercover federal agents by e-mail in April to ask about buying sensors, according to the indictment. She was working with a co-conspirator in China who was trying to buy the devices for a state-run agency and arranged conference calls with the undercover investigators, according to the indictment.
A criminal complaint unsealed on Thursday in San Diego said Qing Li asked for as many as 30 of the US$2,500 sensors to be shipped to Hong Kong and then on to mainland China as "a favor for a friend in China."
She indicated in later messages that her friend might want as many as 100 of the devices if they worked well.
The co-conspirator, who has not been named or indicted and is not in custody, allegedly told investigators during an Oct. 2 conference call with Qing Li that the sensors were for "a special agency, a scientific research institute in China."
The credit-card-size devices, made by Endevco Corp of San Juan Capistrano, can also be used for developing missiles or artillery. It is illegal to export the sensors, which the government has classified as defense articles, without government approval.
A lawyer for Endevco said the company was cooperating with the investigation. According to the complaint, Endevco sales staff referred the woman to the undercover storefront operation after she called the company looking to buy the sensors.
Qing Li, 39, never received sensors from the undercover investigators, officials said, and it was unclear whether she ever procured weapons for export.
Her attorney in New York, Paul Goldberger, did not immediately return a call on Thursday.
"These devices are simply not for export to China or anywhere else without explicit permission from the US government," said Julie Myers, Homeland Security assistant secretary, who oversees illegal export investigations as head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
"Accelerometers are a designated defense article frequently used in missiles, `smart bombs' and other major weapons systems and in the wrong hands, could prove catastrophic," she said.
The defendant is a legal resident who came to the US in 1996.
She was arrested on Sunday at New York's Kennedy Airport as she checked in for an Air China flight to Beijing, according to investigators for ICE.
A federal judge has ordered her held in New York, pending a hearing in San Diego, where the grand jury charges were filed. She faces up to five years in prison and a fine if convicted.
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