The Spy Who Came in From the Cornfields

Chinese man gets three years for conspiracy to steal high-priced modified seeds.

The sentence for Chinese national and U.S. resident Mo Hailong, also known as Robert Mo, was announced by the Justice Department late Wednesday. In addition to the three years in prison, Mo will have three years supervised released, and the DOJ is seizing two farms in America's heartland owned by a Chinese company — pieces of land authorities say were part of the conspiracy to steal trade secrets from some of the biggest names in agriculture.

It all started in May 2011 at a farm outside Tama, Iowa, a town with a population of 2,842, when a field manager working for the Pioneer Hi-Bred Corporation spotted something unusual in one of his fields: an Asian man, later identified as Mo, was "on his knees" in the field while "another Asian male [was] sitting in a nearby car," according to a criminal complaint.

The field manager confronted Mo and Mo made up an excuse about working for the University of Iowa and attending a nearby conference. When the manager took a phone call, the complaint says, "Mo and the Asian male quickly departed the area, driving down through the ditch in order to leave quickly."

The FBI learned about the odd incident weeks later during a routine call to Pioneer, and then a few months after that a local sheriff's office was alerted to reports of "Asian males acting suspiciously" near a farm field in Bondurant, Iowa (population 4,614). One of the men identified himself to responding local authorities as Mo and said his colleagues were visiting from China and driving across the Midwest "looking at crops." The crops they happened to be looking at at the time belonged to agriculture giant Monsanto.

What the Justice Department says the men were after — and what they suspect Mo was digging up originally — were particular kinds of inbred corn seed, or seeds that are carefully genetically modified at great cost to the developers and could be worth a fortune if copied.

In the case of the farm outside Tama, Pioneer officials told investigators the particular field in which Mo was digging "was growing one of [Pioneer's] two or three most highly anticipated inbred corn seed products that they expected to bring to market within the next several years."

By early 2012, the FBI began a surveillance operation on Mo and his alleged accomplices. Multiple times Mo visited small retailers to make large cash purchases of bags of the latest seeds from different companies, from which authorities learned it also could be possible to extract the small number of valuable pure inbred seeds mixed in with the rest of the hybrid seeds. Later investigators discovered Mo and others kept bags of seeds and corn stalks in storage lockers.

The FBI surveillance involved bugging a rental car used by two of the alleged accomplices, which the FBI says caught a conversation while they were driving in the Midwest in September 2012. In it, one notes that if things "go wrong," it could have serious consequences for them.

"They could treat us as spies," one of the men says, according to the complaint.

"That is what we've been doing. What I am trying to say is, as for the charges, there could be several," the other responds.

Later the same month the elaborate plan fell apart when some of Mo's purported co-conspirators attempted to fly back to China. Inside one man's bags were two "bulk-sized microwave popcorn boxes, each appearing to be factory-sealed," the complaint says.

"Upon opening the boxes, on top were actual microwave packages of popcorn, but once they were moved, inside each box were approximately 100 small manila envelopes with a generic number written on each one," the complaint says. And inside the envelopes, seeds.

Another accomplice was nabbed with seeds wrapped in napkins hidden in his packed clothes.

The complaint against Mo was filed in December 2013 and for the past three years his case has been making its way through an Iowa federal court. In January this year he pleaded guilty to a single charge of conspiracy to steal trade secrets.

"Theft of trade secrets is a serious federal crime, as it harms victim companies that have invested millions of dollars and years of work toward the development of proprietary technology," U.S. Attorney Kevin VanderSchel said in the sentencing announcement. "The theft of agricultural trade secrets and other intellectual property poses a grave threat to our national economic security."

As for the other men allegedly involved in the conspiracy, at some point they were released by authorities and are currently being sought by the FBI on conspiracy charges.