MILWAUKEE — A Chinese scientist accused of stealing a research drug from a Wisconsin medical school and planning to pass it off as his own pleaded guilty Wednesday to a reduced charge of illegally accessing a computer.
Hua Jun Zhao was accused of stealing three vials of a possible cancer-fighting drug from the Medical College of Wisconsin in February. Prosecutors said he also downloaded academic research in the hopes of claiming sole credit for it in China.
Zhao, 41, initially pleaded not guilty to tampering with a private computer and lying to a federal agent. An additional charge of economic espionage was dropped but prosecutors maintained the right to renew it with a future indictment.
Instead, as part of a plea deal, Zhao pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of accessing a computer without authorization, thereby obtaining information worth at least $5,000. He faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine and will be sentenced next month.
Defense attorney Michelle Jacobs declined to comment as she left the courtroom.
An interpreter translated the proceedings into Mandarin for Zhao, who told the judge in English he'd only been speaking English for a few years. He wore orange prison pants and a short-sleeve orange prison shirt, and his ankles were shackled.
The computer charge arose from allegations that Zhao, after being confronted about the missing compound, accessed school computers remotely and deleted files related to research on the drug. The college was able to recover the files. Zhao denied accessing the server or deleting files and said he didn't understand the FBI agents' questions due to a language barrier, according to a criminal complaint.
School researchers were studying whether the drug compound could help kill cancer cells without damaging healthy ones. The compound is still in early stages of research and has not advanced to clinical testing.
The lead researcher noticed Feb. 22 that three vials of the compound were missing. School security video showed that Zhao was the only person who entered the researcher's office that day.
Federal investigators questioned him about the vials five days later, but Zhao claimed he didn't understand their questions, the complaint said. The school immediately placed him on administrative leave.
Federal authorities later searched Zhao's home and found a receipt for shipment of a package to Zhao's wife in China. They also found two airline tickets for a flight from Chicago to China leaving in five days.
Agents also found an application to the National Natural Science Foundation of China seeking research funding for C-25. In the application, Zhao wrote in Mandarin that he discovered the compound himself and was seeking funding to continue his research in China.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Ingraham, who prosecuted the case, said the missing vials haven't been found. When asked why the plea deal didn't include a theft charge, the prosecutor said it reflected terms that both sides could agree on.
He also said the reason the more serious charge of economic espionage wasn't renewed was because things change in the course of an investigation.
"As you gather facts your view of the situation can change," Ingraham said.
John Raymond Sr., the medical school's president, said the college didn't object to the plea agreement.