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A conspiracy involving a Chinese scientist charged with trying to steal high-tech seeds from a Fort Collins-based company was foiled through undercover FBI surveillance, according to federal arrest documents.
Weiqiang Zhang, 47, a Chinese citizen and lawful U.S. resident who lives in Kansas, remains on leave with Ventria Bioscience, one of multiple U.S. companies described in the complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney in Kansas. Zhang was arrested earlier this month on accusations that he tried to steal from his employer.
Millions of research dollars are invested in the seeds, which are anticipated to serve life-saving medical purposes such as treating or preventing diarrhea, osteoporosis, liver problems and more. With their research protected as trade secret, the seeds are stored in a locked, temperature-controlled room in Kansas with access limited to six employees’ magnetic cards, according to the complaint.
FBI agents watched Chinese delegates as they visited the United States last summer, and U.S. Customs and Border agents discovered some of the seeds in the delegates’ luggage as they tried to fly home in August. Investigators had listened to phone calls between Zhang and Wengui Yan, who is also charged in the case, as they talked about seeds before the delegates tried to leave, according to the complaint.
Zhang was apparently among the Ventria employees with access to the seeds, some of which were among those found in the envelopes, plastic bags, cases and a page of a local newspaper among the delegates’ luggage on a flight destined for China. One of the delegates said the seeds were from an Arkansas farmer and an agriculture research center in the area, but the DNA of the seeds was traced to Ventria, according to the complaint.
Investigators found records showing Zhang toured agriculture companies in Missouri with the delegates on July 18, but he apparently didn’t tell anyone at Ventria. When a supervisor asked him about taking that day and the one before it off, he “turned visibly red and reported that he did nothing in particular on those days off work but remained in the (Kansas) area,” according to the complaint.