A satellite engineer who sold military secrets to an undercover FBI agent he believed to be a Russian spy was sentenced Monday to five years in federal prison.
In handing down the punishment for Gregory Allen Justice, U.S. District Judge George H. Wu added a few months to what sentencing guidelines recommended, saying he found the crimes "extremely troublesome."
Wu, however, rejected prosecutors' request for more years behind bars after concluding there was insufficient evidence to support a government allegation the Culver City scientist also had been plotting to use a potent drug to murder his wife.
"This defendant sold out his employer and betrayed his country in exchange for a few thousand dollars," said acting U.S. Atty. Sandra R. Brown. "His actions posed an imminent threat to our national security … and a person who was willing to sell important information to a foreign power will now serve a considerable amount of time in a federal prison."
The 2016 investigation into Justice took on a surreal aspect of life imitating art when he told the undercover agent that he was enamored with spy thrillers, including "The Americans," which tells the story of a pair of Russian spies living in the United States during the Cold War.
During a later exchange, Justice and the agent talked about how they "wanted to try to build the type of relationship depicted in the TV show 'The Americans,'" according to court records.
"Unlike a reality television series, selling secrets to a foreign government is not entertaining, but in the wrong hands, threatens national security and puts American lives at risk," said Danny Kennedy, the acting assistant director in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles field office.
Although he told the person posing as a Russian intelligence agent he needed money to care for his ailing wife, bank records showed Justice, 50, was actually spending his money on another woman who hoodwinked the Boeing engineer in an online relationship, prosecutors said. She sent him photos of a European model that she falsely claimed were of herself and convinced him to send money and gifts through the mail, court records show.
The government's allegation that Justice was scheming to kill his wife, arose out of an odd request he made during one of his secret meetings with the undercover agent. In a brief filed last month, prosecutors said Justice asked the agent to supply him with Anectine, a powerful muscle relaxant that can cause cardiac arrest in overdoses, according to court records.
Justice told the agent that doctors had administered the drug to his wife in the past and that he wanted to use it to help ease her chronic problems breathing during sleep. That excuse, prosecutors wrote in the filing, was a lie.
Medical records showed Justice's wife had never been given the drug. And when an agent questioned Justice about the drug after his arrest, prosecutors say, the engineer acknowledged he was "aware that outside of a hospital setting Anectine was most often used as a poison 'for killing.'"
Prosecutors on Monday released a video they filed in the case, which showed the portion of the interview the agent conducted in which he questioned Justice about the drug. In it, Justice spoke slowly and quietly, often pausing for several seconds before answering a question. His long, graying hair was disheveled.
He maintained he had intended only to help his wife. But when the agent asked him how investigators were supposed to interpret his request for the drug despite being unqualified, Justice responded, "You're supposed to think I'm trying to kill my wife."
The agent asked if a fatal overdose would have been an acceptable result. After a long pause, Justice said it would not have been.
Before Wu sentenced him, Justice and his attorney made final pleas for leniency.
His ankles shackled together, Justice rose to address the judge and expressed "regret and remorse" for his crimes. He said he had had a religious epiphany while in custody and repeatedly mentioned his plans to care for his ailing, elderly father after his time in prison.
Kelley Lane Munoz, a public defender who represented Justice, challenged the government's claim of the murder plot and spoke of the stress her client had been under at his job. She said he had struggled with depression and "obsessive compulsive tendencies." She asked Wu to sentence Justice to four years and nine months.
In announcing his decision, Wu rejected the request from Assistant U.S. Atty. Melissa Mills that he send Justice to prison for more than seven years. He rejected Mills' argument that the evidence of Justice's intent to harm his wife "was plain as day."
"Sometimes people fantasize about killing their significant others," but that did not mean they would actually follow through on the idea, Wu said.
Justice worked on commercial and military satellites sold to the Air Force, Navy and NASA, federal court records show. As an engineer, he had access to closely held trade secrets, including anti-jamming technology, encryption plans for communication with satellites and technical data covered by the U.S. Munitions List, federal authorities said.
Because some of the trade secrets were sensitive, they were restricted, under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, from being disseminated outside the U.S.
Authorities first caught wind of potential problems with Justice in November 2015, when a check of his computer revealed he had inserted a USB device containing five folders with detailed mechanical drawings and design information for a satellite program.
When authorities searched his car, they found handwritten notes with addresses for the consulate general of Russia in San Francisco, and the Russian embassy and its office of the defense, military, air and naval attaches in Washington.
The FBI devised its ploy to catch Justice, and the undercover agent made contact with him in February last year, federal authorities said. Over the next six months, the agent paid several $500 or $1,000 cash payments in exchange for thumb drives containing sensitive files with satellite information, the FBI said.
Authorities have not disclosed the name of Justice's employer, but Justice's father previously told the Los Angeles Times that his son worked for Boeing Satellite Systems in El Segundo.
Surveillance teams discovered that Justice's wife was confined to her home. Justice's father told The Times his son's wife had a variety of health issues, including diabetes and chronic accident-related back pain.
In a recorded phone conversation with his wife, federal authorities said, Justice told her that he was canceling all of her medical appointments because he could not come up with money to make repairs to their car to take her to them.
But in reality, Justice spent the $3,500 he received from the agent and more of his money on a woman he had never met in person and who he knew only as "Chay," according to authorities. In court papers, the woman is identified only by the initials C.M.
Over several months in 2015, Justice sent FedEx packages containing more than $21,000 to the woman who lived with her son and boyfriend in an apartment in Long Beach, according to court records.
A search of Justice's computer files turned up the forged photographs the woman had sent. And investigators uncovered text messages in which the woman asked Justice for cash payments.
Justice bought her a Dyson fan, two televisions, a grill, kitchen furniture, an iPhone, a purse and a blanket, according to court records. He also paid for dozens of purchases through Amazon.
Times staff writer Veronica Rocha contributed to this report.
For more news on federal courts in Southern California, follow me on Twitter: @joelrubin
1:30 p.m.: This article was updated with details from the sentencing hearing and a video of Justice as well as statements from federal authorities.
10:25 a.m.: This article was updated with the name of the sentencing judge.
9:55 a.m.: This article was updated with information about the sentence.