A U.S. Navy sailor from Monterey Park accused of taking bribes in exchange for sending sensitive military information to a Chinese intelligence officer was ordered detained today pending trial on federal charges.
Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, 26, also known as Thomas Zhao, had asked the judge to be granted release while awaiting trial. However, U.S. Magistrate Judge Patricia Donahue rejected the request on grounds of flight risk and possible danger to the community or potential witnesses, court papers show.
Zhao pleaded not guilty last week in downtown Los Angeles to federal charges of conspiracy and receipt of a bribe by a public official. Zhao was working at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The indictment alleges that Zhao, who held a security clearance, received bribes from a Chinese intelligence officer in exchange for disclosing non-public, sensitive military information.
Federal prosecutors contend that beginning in August 2021 and continuing through at least May of this year, Zhao sent U.S. military information, photographs and videos to the Chinese intelligence officer.
In exchange for bribes, Zhao allegedly sent the intelligence officer operational plans for a large-scale U.S. military exercise in the Indo-Pacific Region, detailing the specific location and timing of naval movements, amphibious landings, maritime operations and logistics support, according to the indictment.
He also allegedly photographed electrical diagrams and blueprints for a radar system stationed on a U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan.
Prosecutors contend Zhao obtained and transmitted details about the Navy’s operational security at the Naval Base in Ventura County and on San Clemente Island, including photographs and videos.
The intelligence officer directed Zhao to conceal their relationship and to destroy evidence of the scheme, prosecutors allege.
In exchange for the information Zhao provided — information he accessed as a result of his position within the U.S. Navy — the Chinese intelligence officer paid Zhao nearly $15,000, the indictment alleges.
If convicted of the two counts in the indictment, Zhao would face up to 20 years in federal prison, prosecutors noted.
A second sailor based in San Diego was arrested last week on similar charges, but it’s unclear if the cases are related or if the two seamen allegedly were in contact with the same Chinese officials.