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Gun-crime trial starts for Navy officer charged after probe of Chinese CEO

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

A U.S. Navy officer’s trial opened Monday in Jacksonville’s federal court with opposing lawyers painting starkly different versions of his dealings with a Chinese business executive imprisoned for export crimes.

The relationship between Lt. Fan Yang and Ge Songtao, chairman of the Shanghai Breeze Technology Corp. in Shanghai, China, is at the core of how the naval flight officer based at Naval Air Station Jacksonville came to be charged with gun crimes, conspiracy and making false statements during a security review.

Yang was Ge’s friend and married to one of his employees, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Coolican told jurors during opening remarks for a trial that could last through the week.

Ge was sentenced in July to 42 months behind bars for trying to ship rubber “raiding craft” and specialized military-grade boat engines from this country to China so he could reverse-engineer a version of the engines he hoped to sell to China’s navy.

Ge, who visited the United States two or three times per year on business, was also a gun enthusiast who visited American shooting ranges during his trips.

Prosecutors have said that Yang bought two pistols for the executive – Ge’s initials were engraved in one – and kept one in a storage unit until Ge wanted it

It’s illegal for a foreigner who doesn’t have a green card to carry a gun, and prosecutors charged Yang with making two “straw purchases” where he told gun dealers he was buying the firearms for himself.

But Yang’s attorney, Charles Truncale, told jurors he simply loaned Ge a gun at the shooting range and thought that was legal because other people did the same thing.

“Numerous other individuals … who accommodated Ge’s possession and use of firearms at the firing ranges in the United States all believed that their actions in that regard were legal and not in violation of federal firearms laws,” Truncale told Senior U.S. District Judge Harvey Schlesinger in a legal filing last week, listing four other people by name and “numerous other persons” he said accommodated Ge.

One of those people, the operator of a gun training business, recorded a video of Ge shooting at his gun range and posted it on Facebook as marketing, Truncale told jurors, building on an argument that Yang never considered that his actions might be illegal.

Yang, his wife, Ge and Ge’s assistant were all charged in 2019 with conspiring to violate export laws, but prosecutors issued a different indictment for the lieutenant last year. The other three all took plea deals.

Investigators used warrants from the government’s Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to gather information that became part of the case, and early in the case a classified information security officer was tapped to ensure classified information was protected.

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