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Chinese student pleads guilty to taking pictures of Navy base in Florida

Naval Air Station Key West, Florida.

U.S. NAVY

By GWEN FILOSA | Florida Keys Keynoter, (Marathon, Fla.) | Published: February 22, 2020

(Tribune News Service) — A Chinese doctoral student pleaded guilty Friday to taking photographs of a U.S. Navy base in Key West the day after Christmas and now faces up to one year in prison for the misdemeanor crime.

Lyuyou Liao, 27, appeared in U.S. District Court in Key West before Magistrate Judge Lurana Snow, two months after military police caught him using his cellphone to take photos after breaching the guarded property at the Navy's Truman Annex downtown.

"Guilty," Liao said, through a Mandarin interpreter when asked to plead to one count of photographing or sketching defense installations in Key West.

Prosecutors agreed to drop a misdemeanor charge of trespassing on military property and two additional counts of photographing defense installations in exchange for his guilty plea.

Sentencing is set for May 11 before Chief Judge K. Michael Moore in Key West. A jury trial had been set for March 2.

After the hearing, Liao's attorney, Daniel Rashbaum said he couldn't comment.

The change of plea ran contrary to what Liao originally said when caught by military police on the restricted property, which he walked onto at 6:50 a.m. Dec. 26, 2019, by going around a perimeter fence and entering from some rocks along the seawater.

Liao told police he walked onto the base to take photos of the sunrise.

Witnesses warned Liao he was trespassing as he used his cellphone camera to capture images of government buildings near "sensitive military facilities," according to the federal criminal complaint.

Liao agreed to waive his Miranda rights and told the agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in broken English that "he was trying to take photographs of the sunrise," according to the complaint affidavit.

But when Liao provided the pass code to his cellphone and allowed the agent to look at the images, the agent said he saw images of Truman Annex.

Liao was working on his Ph.D. in St. Louis, Missouri, while on a full scholarship from the Chinese government, prosecutors said.

Since the fall of 2018, four Chinese nationals have been arrested on charges of shooting pictures of military facilities in Key West, drawing the sharp interest of U.S. counterintelligence investigators who have been looking into suspected Beijing-led spying activities in South Florida, including visitors to President Donald Trump's private club, Mar-a-Lago, in Palm Beach.

Yuhao Wang and Jielun Zhang, both 24, are accused in a complaint of defying the guard at the gate at the entrance to Sigsbee Park Annex the morning of Jan. 4 so they could take illegal photos of sensitive military assets. Both were full-time students in master's degree programs at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. They are in jail awaiting the resolution of their cases. A trial is set for March 2 before Moore in Key West.

In September of last year, Zhao Qianli, who said he was a music student from China, got caught by Key West police trespassing at Truman Annex by using the beach at Fort Zachary State Park as his entrance. Two months later, federal agents searched his digital camera and found images of the Navy base.

The Joint Interagency Task Force South, which is responsible for security and military operations in Central America, South America and the Caribbean, is located at Truman Annex.

Qianli pleaded guilty in February to one count of photographing defense installations and was sentenced to one year in prison by Moore.

At the time of his arrest, Qianli said he was just a "dishwasher from New Jersey."

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