DAVIS – Former University of California eye researcher Bin Han, his wife and their two sons, ages 9 and 14, were home watching “Jurassic Park III” on May 17 when police showed up with a search warrant.
“Bingo,” one officer said as he peered into Han’s freezer.
The officer found 20 vials of a biological “glue” used in stem cell experiments that belonged to a UC Davis lab. Days before, the lab had fired Han for allegedly mishandling three mice used in experiments.
Han is one of four Asian-born scientists working in U.S. labs who has been jailed in recent weeks, accused of stealing valuable research material.
A fifth admitted in May that he lied to the FBI to cover up for a colleague who allegedly looted $2 million worth of Alzheimer’s disease research.
But most charges against Han and the others have been downgraded or dropped. Han, originally charged with three felonies, now faces only a misdemeanor theft charge.
The arrests have opened a window onto an industry that experts say is plagued by spying and smuggling of American trade secrets, and a new U.S. law that has been able to do little about it.
On the other side, Asian-American groups say the prosecutions smack of the same overzealous fear of Asian competition seen in the government’s rigorous prosecution of Wen Ho Lee, a Chinese-American accused in 1999 of copying sensitive nuclear weapons data at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Although Lee was held in solitary confinement for nine months, he was charged only with illegally downloading data.
Since 1996, when Congress passed the Economic Espionage Act, the Justice Department has prosecuted 47 people in 34 cases. Of those cases, 16 were filed in the last 18 months.
Asian defendants were involved in a quarter of those prosecutions.
Chinese-American groups charge that some cases are little more than racist “witch hunts” that have historically plagued scientists of ethnic Chinese origin.
“You can’t help but question the motivation behind the charges,” said Ivy Lee, a retired sociology professor who is president of the Sacramento-based Chinese American Political Action Committee, one of the groups protesting the recent arrests.
For prosecutors, the cases are extraordinarily tough to bring forward. They require not only proof of criminal intent, but painstaking investigations by agents schooled in the high-tech world of biotechnology and other sciences.
“You have to prove several elements, including that the defendant stole something to make money, that something was a trade secret and it was done with an intent to injure a particular company,” said David Green, deputy chief of the Justice Department’s intellectual property section.
Federal prosecutors reject many cases because they are connected to business disputes best resolved through lawsuits, Green said.
Other cases are hamstrung by victimized companies reluctant to come forward for fear of upsetting investors and tipping off competitors to potential problems.
Additional obstacles exist in the biotechnology industry, where key research is done in academic labs that often foster a free flow of scientific information.
Biotechnology companies are particularly vulnerable to trade theft because individual secrets – such as simply knowing where a few important genes are located – are key to developing blockbuster drugs.
Uncovering and convicting spies in such a realm has proved extremely tricky.
Perhaps no case highlights the challenges more than one involving the University of California, Davis and the vials seized from Bin Han’s freezer.
UC Davis officials said the vials were worth $1 billion in the right hands. They told police they feared Han was planning to return to his native China and launch a biotechnology company with the school’s property.
When police also found Han had a plane ticket to China, investigators decided it all added up to economic espionage.
So Han was arrested and charged with three felonies that could have sent him to prison for 25 years. He was held without bail in solitary confinement for 18 days.
But today, Han is out of jail and the felony charges have been dropped. Han is scheduled to go trial Aug. 13 on a single misdemeanor theft charge, the legal equivalent of shoplifting.
As it turned out, Han had innocent explanations for most of his actions.
He said he stored the vials in his freezer because he didn’t have time to drop them off on campus the day he picked them up from a Sacramento biotechnology company. He said he was fired before he could take the vials to the lab.
The ticket to China turned out to be round-trip, for a long-planned journey to visit his parents. He said he was leaving his family behind in the Davis home they own.
The Yolo County District Attorney’s office, which is prosecuting Han, didn’t return telephone calls. UC Davis officials say race had nothing to do with Han’s case and still maintain he stole school property.
Separately, federal prosecutors in Boston have agreed to delay an economic espionage case against former Harvard Medical School scientists Kayoko Kimbara and Jiangyu Zhu as a potential plea bargain on lesser crimes is negotiated.
One possible sticking point for prosecutors is the fact that two, who were arrested in June, are accused of stealing genes they themselves discovered. Their defenders say it’s common for such post-doctoral scientists to take their work with them when they change jobs.
Kimbara, of Japan, and the China-born Zhu are accused of sending the genes to a Japanese biotechnology company. They signed routine agreements that gave Harvard ownership to any discoveries they made while working there. They contend they meant only to further their research and never intended to profit from it.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston declined to comment on the case.
That prosecution followed one from the Cleveland Clinic in which economic espionage charges were dropped against Alzheimer’s researcher Hiroaki Serizawa in exchange for his admission that he lied to the FBI to cover up for Takashi Okamoto, a fellow Japanese scientist now in his homeland resisting U.S. extradition attempts.
Okamoto is accused of stealing and destroying vials of genetic material key to Alzheimer’s disease research from the Cleveland Clinic and taking them with him to Riken, a Japanese government-sponsored research facility.
The alleged theft and destruction of genetic materials led to the termination of the clinic’s Alzheimer’s studies.