Feds: Plot to steal rice goes back 3 years

Chinese scientist living in Manhattan to appear in court

By Bryan Richardson

A criminal complaint against a Manhattan man claims that a conspiracy to steal rice seed samples from a Junction City research facility began more than three years ago.

FBI Special Agent Charles Campbell said Weiqiang Zhang of Manhattan and Wengui Yan of Stuttgart, Ark., arranged for a Chinese delegation to visit the U.S. this year.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel discovered the stolen seeds Aug. 7 prior to the delegation’s departure for China.

Zhang and Yan were charged last week with conspiracy to steal trade secrets.

A preliminary and detention hearing was set for 4 p.m. Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan., before Magistrate Judge James P. O’Hara.

Zhang, 47, worked as an agricultural seed breeder at a Ventria Bioscience research facility in Junction City, starting in 2008.

The company, based in Fort Collins, Colo., develops rice that is genetically modified to grow proteins for medical and pharmaceutical uses.

According to the criminal complaint, the conspiracy began Oct. 17, 2010, when Zhang drafted a letter to the Crops Research Institute in China about his loyalty to the “mother land” - and his desire to bring knowledge he’d obtained to the institute.

Zhang, a citizen of the People’s Republic of China, is in the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident.

He began research at Kansas State University in 2000 in the application of biotechnology in crop production.

Zhang then pursued a doctoral degree at Louisiana State University, receiving a degree in 2005.

The FBI obtained a letter from the draft folder in Zhang’s work email account. Officials translated the email nearly verbatim from Chinese to English.

“Although I live abroad, the mother land has always been in my heart,” the letter said. “I hope someday to return to the Crops Research Institute and offer all that I have learned without reservation.”

Zhang and Yan traveled to the institute at the same time in August 2012, a visit arranged by two members of the delegation that visited the United States this year, according to the complaint.

Zhang is accused of harvesting seeds at Ventria and storing them in his residence, starting around October 2012.

FBI agents searched Zhang’s home, listed as 1117 E. Park Grove Drive, on Wednesday - while Zhang and his wife were present.

Zhang initially denied that seeds would be found in his residence.

Agents found seeds at Zhang’s home, including two types that were only produced by Ventria and matched the seeds found in possession of the Chinese delegation.

Zhang denied giving any seeds to the delegation or taking any member of the delegation to Ventria’s Junction City facility.

He told agents that he took the seeds home for “private research.”

The Chinese delegation visit lasted from July 16 to Aug. 7. According to its itinerary, the trip included visits to the University of Kansas, Iowa State University, Ohio State University and - along with Yan - stopped at various facilities in Arkansas.

According to the visa applications, an unnamed professor of agronomy in Kansas served as the U.S. point of contact. The professor communicated with Zhang via email about the delegation’s visit.

Ventria personnel told the FBI that Zhang took personal level July 17-18 in uncharacteristic fashion - requesting the leave on short notice.

A supervisor said Zhang turned visibly red when asked about the leave, and insisted he had remained in the area, doing nothing in particular.

The complaint said Zhang went to a facility in Creve Coeur, Mo., during that time without Ventria’s knowledge.

If convicted, Zhang and Yan could face up to 10 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

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