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At federal trial, Navy officer says he didn’t question legality of deal with Chinese executive

U.S. Navy Lt. Fan Yang, left, explains systems in the P-8A Poseidon aircraft. (Steve Patterson/ Florida Times-Union/TNS)

A U.S. Navy officer on trial for federal gun crimes told a jury in Jacksonville Tuesday he hadn’t realized an arrangement with a Chinese business executive could lead to him spending years behind bars.

“I never really questioned the legality of it, because he was very open about it,” Lt. Fan Yang said of a plan he explored for the now-imprisoned executive to organize “firearm tourism” trips to the United States for himself and other Chinese gun enthusiasts.

The idea — to bring foreign tour groups to Florida to experience “different firearms, different techniques and lots of shooting” — never came to fruition.

But Yang has already been jailed since October 2019 on charges including conspiracy and straw purchases of two guns for the executive, Shanghai Breeze Technology Co. Chairman Ge Songtao, to use during business trips to America.

Foreigners without green cards can’t legally possess guns in the United States unless they fall under one of several exemptions.

Yang, a naval flight officer based at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, told jurors Ge was already getting shooting instruction at American gun ranges when he came to Yang’s home in 2017 to talk business with Yang’s wife, a consultant hired the year before to work on Shanghai Breeze’s boat business.

He said Ge had cell phone photos of himself shooting and talked about his passion for guns. Yang said Ge told him he ran the boat business to make money but wanted to build his gun-tourism idea and use a business built around that as a tool to get a green card to live in America long-term.

“I don’t see how it would make any sense for him to build up a business that was unlawful,” Yang said in a trial that has helped air elements of a tortuous court case rooted in efforts to prevent foreign industrial espionage.

Ge was sentenced in July to 42 months in prison for export crimes involving trying to ship American-made inflatable “raiding craft” and specialized military-grade outboard motors to China, where Ge hoped to reverse-engineer his own version to sell to China’s navy.

Yang, his wife, Yang Yang and Ge’s assistant, Zheng Yan, were indicted with Ge in 2019 in a case built with information gathered through warrants from the federal government’s Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

But while the others took plea deals, Yang, a Chinese-born American citizen, continued to plead innocent.

Prosecutors last year stopped trying to tie Yang to export crimes and focused on charges involving gun charges and making false statements during a routine review for his Navy security clearance.

During the trial that began last week, prosecutors detailed clear evidence that Yang bought two pistols, a Sig Sauer and a Glock, that were provided for Ge’s use during visits to a shooting range in Orange Park in 2017 and another in Nebraska in 2018.

But defense attorney Charles Truncale has tried to build an argument that Yang lacked an awareness that he was doing anything illegal because he saw other people, who haven’t been charged, doing the same thing for Ge.

Jurors on Monday saw video of a deposition by Zheng, who returned to China after pleading guilty and being sentenced to time served, in which she mentioned four other people she said helped Ge obtain guns.

The deposition, conducted in March, included a video a Nebraska gun range owner posted on social media showing Ge shooting on his property.

Early in the trial, prosecutors called the owner of a Central Florida shooting academy to discuss an email exchange where Yang asked him about Ge’s firearm tourism.

“These tourists are not looking to be proficient in a specific firearm, but looking for a lot of exposure to everything you can offer,” Yang wrote on behalf of his wife’s consulting company. “Different firearms, different techniques and lots of shooting should make them very happy.”

Frank Garcia, a former world champion with the International Practical Shooting Confederation, answered that IPSC his Universal Shooting Academy offers sport shooting courses that might satisfy the Chinese tourists.

Tuesday, Yang said he read Garcia’s answer as a sign there was nothing wrong with the idea, as long as a gun range owner or representative was overseeing what happened.

“That, to me, was confirmation of what I had believed to be legal,” Yang said.

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