At around 6:50 a.m. local time, witnesses observed Liao Lyuyou, a Chinese national, walking along the secure fenceline of the Naval Air Station in Key West. He walked around the perimeter fence and entered the base from rocks along the water, according to a federal complaint.
The special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, who filed the complaint, noted “numerous warnings” on the security fence that caution against trespassing.
Despite verbal warning from witnesses that he shouldn’t be in the restricted area, Liao proceeded to enter and take multiple photos with his camera.
When U.S. military police came to question Liao a few minutes later, Liao explained in broken English that he was “trying to take photographs of the sunrise.” The officers, however, found photographs of the restricted Truman Annex area on his camera.
Section 1382 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code of Laws prohibits any individual from entering military installations for purposes that are prohibited by law. By photographing the military base, Liao also allegedly violated Section 795 of Title 18, a criminal offense that’s punishable by up to a year in prison as well as fines.
Liao made his first appearance in court on Dec. 27, which lasted less than a half-hour. Magistrate Judge Patrick Hunt named the federal public defender’s office to represent Liao and scheduled his pretrial custody hearing for Jan. 6; his arraignment will be a week later.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), in a Twitter post on Dec. 27, called the incident “incredibly concerning.” He also noted that it’s “not the first time this has happened with Chinese nationals.”
Liao’s arrest took place a little over a year after prosecutors charged another Chinese national in connection with a similar incident.
Zhao Qianli, a 21-year-old from China’s Shanxi Province, was arrested in September 2018 for illegally taking photos of the same Navy base and surrounding military facilities.
According to a court document, Zhao walked directly toward the Joint Interagency Task Force South Antenna Field and took multiple photographs with his phone, as well as a camera. A search of the photos showed that Zhao also photographed the restricted warning signs.
Zhao told investigators at the time that he was “lost” and that he was a “dishwasher from New Jersey,” but later claimed he was a music student at a Chinese university, during a December debriefing.
Officials found a police shirt and belt buckle at the hotel where Zhao was staying that belonged to a Chinese government ministry; he said he’d obtained the items from his father, who wanted him to “have nice clothes” while in the United States.
Zhao was sentenced in February to a year in federal prison after pleading guilty to photographing defense installations. He will be deported after serving the sentence.
Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that the U.S. government secretly expelled two Chinese Embassy officials who allegedly drove onto a military base in Virginia.
The two were accompanied by their wives as they drove through the entry checkpoint of the base despite being denied permission, evading military personnel that pursued them.
In September, a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from China was charged with spying for the Chinese government.
Xuehua “Edward” Peng, who has a degree in engineering, came to the United States on a temporary business visa in 2001 and obtained U.S. citizenship in 2012. He had been working as a tour guide in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Prosecutors believed Peng was acting as a “courier” for China’s Ministry of State Security, the country’s top intelligence organization, and had been passing classified U.S. national security information through secure digital cards.
“This case illustrates the seriousness of Chinese espionage efforts and the determination of the United States to thwart them,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers said, after the charges were unsealed.