A Chinese doctoral student in microbiology charged with conspiracy to illegally export military sensors was denied his request to be released to a halfway house, where he could continue to work on his Ph.D. dissertation.
The hearing was before a federal magistrate in Albuquerque on Thursday, according to newly unsealed documents.
Wentong Cai, 29, of Ames, Iowa, and Bo Cai, 28, of Nanjing, China, remain in custody – Wentong at the Torrance County Detention Center, where the U.S. Marshals Service houses prisoners awaiting trial, and Bo Cai at the Santa Fe County Detention Center, pending trial.
A trial date is set in August before U.S. District Judge Martha Vázquez.
Attorneys in California and New Mexico for the two defendants weren’t available for comment Friday.
The two men are charged in a superseding indictment filed under seal in January with the unlawful export of defense articles – sensors used in military guidance systems – as well as smuggling and conspiracy.
As described in court filings, an export license from the U.S. State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls is required to export certain defense devices, including the ARS-14 Angular Rate sensor, and export is prohibited to several countries, including China, Syria and Sudan.
The sensor is manufactured in New Mexico and is used “for weapons or weapon systems; guidance, control and stabilization systems,” documents say.
The indictment alleges that Wentong Cai and Bo Cai began trying to arrange the purchase and export in March 2012 and that their efforts continued until Bo Cai was arrested in California in December as he was about to board a flight to return to China. The arrangements were made in phone calls, recorded in-person meetings and emails to an undercover agent with U.S. Homeland Security Investigations.
Wentong Cai was arrested Jan. 22 in Iowa, where he had been a teaching assistant in veterinary microbiology and is now a Ph.D. candidate.
Attorney Angelica Hall appeared on behalf of Wentong Cai before Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Molzen on Thursday with the aid of a Mandarin interpreter seeking to revisit the detention issue for her client. If Cai were allowed to be released to a halfway house, he could continue work on his dissertation, according to a defense motion.
At a previous hearing in February before now-retired U.S. Magistrate Judge Alan Torgerson, the judge ordered his release to a federal halfway house under special conditions and a curfew.
The Marshals Service, however, notified Torgerson that Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an arm of Homeland Security, had placed a hold on Wentong Cai, prompting Torgerson to withdraw his previous order.
Hall argued that Wentong Cai has no criminal history, has consulted with an immigration attorney and that he could continue academic work at a halfway house.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Dean Tuckman, who is handling the prosecution, opposed release saying the weight of the evidence against Cai is strong, his ties are to China, not the United States, and he is close to an international border.
“In fact,” the government’s response says, “in a conversation recorded after his co-defendant was arrested, (Wentong Cai) told (Bo Cai) that they should just go back to China and get jobs there. … In the process of obtaining an advanced degree, he used his position at Iowa State University and his university email address to try to obtain the charged sensor for illegal export to China.”
Search warrants filed by investigators authorizing seizure of Wentong Cai’s computer say Cai wanted to buy up to 20 sensors for research projects.
The undercover agent told Cai that he could not legally export the sensor without a license, and that such a license would never be granted for export to China.
The agent arranged the sale of three sensors, two of which were to be shipped. Bo Cai wanted to take a third one in his suitcase.
The non-functioning sensor Bo Cai allegedly placed in a computer speaker inside his suitcase was found when he tried to board a United Airlines flight in Los Angeles.