Two US Navy Sailors, Alleged Spies, Ruled Flight Risks in Pretrial Hearing

Two Navy sailors who allegedly spied for China appeared in separate federal courts in California on Tuesday for pretrial detention hearings, days after being arrested and accused of providing sensitive government information to intelligence officials from the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

In separate cases announced together on August 3, the Department of Justice said Petty Officer 2nd class Jinchao “Patrick” Wei, 22, was charged with espionage and Petty Officer Wenheng “Thomas” Zhao, 26, was charged with transmitting information to a PRC intelligence officer. It remains unclear whether they were in touch with the same Chinese intelligence officer.

The suspects, who were born in China, are naturalized U.S. citizens. According to court papers, the sailors allegedly received cash in return for providing China with information about the technologies they used at work and about upcoming Navy operations, including international military exercises and radar placements.

According to ABC News, Zhao was denied bail during his detention hearing Tuesday morning in Los Angeles. The judge said he considered Zhao a flight risk and danger to the community while ordering him detained. Zhao’s attorney, Richard Goldman, told the court there are indications that Zhao believed he was dealing with an investment operative, not an agent of China.

Hours later in San Diego, Wei was also denied bail after the judge ruled he was a flight risk and danger to the community, according to ABC News. Wei’s defense attorney, Jason Conforti, had argued that Wei is not a danger to the community and “doesn’t have the access to information anymore.”

Both men had initial appearances on Aug. 3, during which they both pleaded not guilty to their charges, according to ABC News. Wei is next due in court on Aug. 21, while Zhao’s next court date has been scheduled for Sept. 26.

Liu Pengyu, the spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in the U.S., told VOA Mandarin in an emailed statement, “I am not aware of the details of the case. In recent years, the US government and media have frequently hyped up cases of ‘espionage’ related to China. China firmly opposes groundless slander and smear of China by the US side.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Matthew Olsen of the National Security Division of the Justice Department said in an August 3 release that the two sailors “stand accused of violating the commitments they made to protect the United States and betraying the public trust, to the benefit of the PRC government.”

In the same release, FBI Assistant Director Suzanne Turner said, “The PRC compromised enlisted personnel to secure sensitive military information that could seriously jeopardize U.S. national security.”

Wei was arrested on August 2 on espionage charges as he arrived for work at Naval Base San Diego, homeport to the Pacific Fleet Surface Navy, with 56 U.S. Navy ships and two auxiliary vessels. He was indicted for conspiracy to send national defense information to a PRC intelligence officer.

The indictment alleges that Wei was a machinist’s mate on the U.S.S. Essex stationed at Naval Base San Diego and held a U.S. security clearance with access to sensitive national defense information about the ship’s weapons, propulsion and desalination systems.

According to the indictment, Wei was approached by a PRC intelligence officer in February 2022 when he was in the process of getting his U.S. citizenship. During the course of the conspiracy, he allegedly sold information about the U.S.S. Essex and other Navy ships, especially photos, videos and documents concerning U.S. Navy ships and their systems to a PRC handler. His handler allegedly congratulated him once he obtained citizenship.

Wei is alleged to have provided the handler with technical and mechanical manuals for the Essex and similar ships.

If convicted, Wei could be sentenced to life in federal prison.

He graduated from Delavan-Darien High School in Delavan, Wisconsin, in 2019, receiving a student achiever award during his senior year, according to an online yearbook photo found by local news. No one answered calls to the school.

Zhao worked at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, California, and held a U.S. security clearance. The base is home to the Pacific Seabees, the West Coast E-2/D Hawkeyes, the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division and other divisions, according to its website.

According to a 13-page grand jury indictment  filed in U.S. District Court in the Central District of California, Zhao allegedly transmitted to a PRC officer sensitive, nonpublic U.S. military information, photographs and videos, including operational plans for a large-scale U.S. military exercise in the Indo-Pacific Region and electrical diagrams and blueprints for a radar system stationed on a U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan. In exchange, he allegedly received $14,866 from his handler from August 2021 through at least May 2023.

According to Zhao’s LinkedIn profile, his mother tongue is Chinese, and his work experience in the U.S. began in January 2016 as a travel agent. He joined the U.S. Navy in April 2017 and started school at American Military University in 2020. He later became an instructor in the U.S. Naval Architecture Division in 2023. VOA reached out to the American Military University but did not receive a reply by the time of publication.

Zhao’s family lives in in Monterey Park, California. The property is divided with a front house and a rear house. A “BEWARE OF DOG” sign hung on the fence when a VOA Mandarin reporter visited on Aug. 3, and trees covered the surrounding walls.

When the VOA reporter arrived at the door, a woman came outside and told the reporter not to take photos.

“I won’t answer any of your questions. Please leave immediately,” she said.  

Several neighbors told VOA Mandarin they rarely saw the family coming and going.

Rocky Zhang, a Monterey Park resident, told VOA that the allegations show how China spies on U.S. military intelligence.

“America is a free country, people from all over the world can come here, and some people will abuse the freedom to steal intelligence,” he said. “I came from mainland China, and now I am a citizen of the United States. This is my country.”

Zhang added he didn’t want the U.S. to face political or military threats from China.

He also said incidents like the spying allegations against Zhao and Wei significantly affect people of Chinese descent in the U.S. Over time, other people would think that all Chinese are like the two alleged spies, he said, so they treat Chinese and even other Asians differently from any other American.

“In fact, most Chinese are good people with a clear mind and would not do such a thing,” he said. 

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