(CN) — A Chinese national researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, was taken into custody and arrested Friday on evidence destruction charges after attempting to dispose of a hard drive linked to an FBI investigation, according to the Justice Department.
In court documents filed by the DOJ, Guan Lei, 29, first came across the FBI’s radar during an investigation into alleged visa fraud when he requested a transfer to Los Angeles from China.
Lei, originally a student at China’s National University of Defense Technology, reportedly told law enforcement officials under oath when applying for his transfer visa that he had never served in the military and denied any association with the People’s Liberation Army.
Investigators discovered, however, that there was more to the story. After being further questioned over his involvement with the Chinese military, Lei admitted that during his time at the National University of Defense Technology he not only dressed in Chinese military uniform, but also participated in some military training.
While Lei continued to maintain that this did not mean he served in the military, court documents say he also admitted that during his time at the Chinese university, his supervisors at the school were “high-ranking” officials in the Chinese military.
Things came to a head when, during an FBI interview with Lei this July, Lei reportedly told investigators looking into the alleged visa fraud that aside from a laptop and two phones, Lei did not have any other storage devices or drives that contained relevant investigation information.
While Lei allowed agents to search his laptop during the July interview, he refused to let officials take the laptop with them to conduct a more thorough search.
Two days after the interview, Lei was stopped and questioned at the Los Angeles International Airport where he was attempting to catch a flight to China.
Officers continued to question Lei over any access he may have to storage devices related to the investigation, with officials even asking Lei if he had any contact with anyone from the Chinese consulate while he was in the United States. Lei denied having made any such contact.
Law enforcement officials say they later learned these statements made by Lei were false, resulting in a criminal complaint filed against Lei that was unsealed Friday.
According to the complaint, Google records obtained by a law enforcement search warrant showed that Lei reached out to the Chinese consulate numerous times during the summer, correspondence that seemed to largely center on flight options back to China. Documents show that Lei’s girlfriend, while living together, also took a ride via Lyft to the nearby consulate in July.
Lei also allegedly tried to destroy evidence, with officials claiming that several days after attempting to hop on a plane to China, Lei tossed a destroyed hard drive into a nearby dumpster outside of his apartment. Officials say that the hard drive was “irreparably damaged” and that the information on the drive appeared to have been forcefully and purposefully removed.
Lei has been charged with destroying evidence to obstruct an FBI investigation and is being investigated for possibly sending sensitive United States software data to his previous Chinese university — the same school that, according to the complaint, has been suspected of “procuring U.S.-origin items to develop supercomputers with nuclear explosive applications.”
Lei made his initial appearance in court Friday afternoon where a magistrate judge ordered him to be detained and set an arraignment hearing to be held on Sept. 17.
If convicted, Lei potentially faces up to 20 years in federal prison, the statutory maximum sentence for felony destruction of evidence charges.