A Chinese man suspected of procuring stolen military equipment is facing a smuggling charge after, investigators say, he tried to buy a $20,000 pair of military night vision goggles from an undercover agent in San Diego.
Yang Xin, a Chinese resident from the Guizhou province who also goes by the alias Troy Shin, was indicted by a San Diego federal grand jury last week with violating arms trafficking laws.
There is no indication who Xin is suspected of working for, but experts say the types of sophisticated, sensitive military-grade equipment he is accused of seeking are highly prized by foreign governments, criminal organizations and in war zones.
"These are some of the best equipment made in the world, and whether it's an arms dealer or China, it's a serious issue," said Michael Wessel, a member of the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a group created by Congress to monitor relations between the nations.
The investigation into Xin began in September 2014. A search of his email revealed that he'd obtained military equipment that had been part of a $1.7 million heist from Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, according to the complaint.
The items Xin had purchased included 15 Advanced Target Pointer/Illuminator Aiming Lasers, also known as LA-5s, according to an affidavit filed by U.S. Homeland Security Investigations in San Diego. The laser is lightweight and attached to weapons for firing upon a target at night.
Jordan Lee Smith, a Marine at Camp Lejeune, pleaded guilty to stealing and selling the equipment, including laser sighting systems, thermal night vision imaging devices and other optics. He was sentenced earlier this month to two years and nine months in prison and ordered to pay $1.15 million in restitution.
Smith's Raleigh-based lawyer, Mike Kinkosum, said the married Marine had been feeling the pressure of bills piling up. The thefts from the base started as a one-time thing and snowballed from there, he said.
Two other Marines received military discipline but were not criminally charged.
Another North Carolina man, Steven Paul Browning, pleaded guilty to unlawfully exporting the stolen gear, according to federal court records. When Browning was arrested in March, authorities seized 47 pieces of military equipment from a home in Jacksonville, N.C., records show. Xin is suspected of obtaining the lasers from Browning, investigators wrote in the affidavit.
Authorities began investigating Xin in October 2014, when a "cooperating source" told agents that someone on eBay was trying to acquire Ground Panoramic Night Vision Goggles, and an undercover agent took over the negotiations. The account's identifying information matched Xin, the affidavit said.
The military goggles, with two additional lenses on each side, greatly improves the user's peripheral vision and can be handheld or attached to a helmet for night or low-light operations.
The email transaction lasted for months as details were ironed out, but then fell through. Xin worried several times that he would not get the goggles once he sent the money through PayPal, and a face-to-face handoff was set up for Hawaii but never happened, according to investigators.
The deal ended but picked up again a year later, then abruptly ended again. During that time, Xin made a trip to the U.S. from China, claiming to customs officials he was in possession of just over $21,000, investigators said. He landed in Los Angeles, and there are no public details of where he went from there or why he was carrying so much cash.
Negotiations for the goggles renewed in January, when the agent emailed Xin asking if he was still interested. The price was set at $20,000 for a single unit.
On January 30, Xin flew from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, declaring $20,056 in currency, the affidavit said. Three days later, he met with the undercover agent at an office building in Del Mar Heights. During the meeting, he told the agent that he'd bought similar night vision goggles before and wanted two more, plus a PRC-117g tactical radio and PVS-31 night vision binoculars, the affidavit said.
After the purchase for the goggle set was complete, Xin abruptly ended the meeting, according to the court records. He was arrested by federal agents minutes later.
Under the Arms Export Control Act, such military-grade items can only be exported with a license and authorization from the State Department.
Wessel, a former top Congressional aide who now runs a public affairs consulting firm, said demand for such equipment has grown as regional conflicts around the world have mushroomed — from cartel rivalries in Mexico to terror in the Middle East to civil war in Syria to espionage in China. There is also the threat of reverse engineering the U.S.'s innovations or mining it for weaknesses, such as learning frequencies on tactical radios in order to jam the enemy's radios.
"The U.S. is the leader in military equipment, and the ability to reverse engineer all this may create real opportunities for producers," Wessel said. "Others are always trying to find out the capabilities of other adversaries."
The theft of military gear — from helmets to weapons to high-tech equipment — has been a scourge for U.S. forces. Camp Lejeune has been at the center of such scandals before, including an investigation announced in 2012 that uncovered a massive theft ring and $2 million in stolen gear. Investigators said the equipment was being sold out of garages and backs of cars, as well as online, to buyers that included gangs and Chinese nationals.
San Diego has also had its share of unscrupulous military members.
Last month, two East County California Army National Guardsmen admitted selling guns to an undercover agent in the belief the weapons were headed for Mexico. The firearms were not military, but authorities also accused the men of selling military equipment from the National Guard, including gun magazines, ammunition, ballistic vests and the ceramic shields that go inside the vests.
In 2011, a former sailor who worked in the armory at Coronado Naval Amphibious Base got prison time for repeatedly loading up his backpack with stolen gear, including night vision goggles and tactical equipment. Some of the 280 items he ended up selling went to customers in Hong Kong, prosecutors said.
Also, former Coronado-based Navy SEAL Nicholas Bickle was sentenced to 17½ years in 2012 for smuggling machine guns home from Iraq and then giving them and other weapons to friends to sell.