Residents of a sleepy street in Waterdown, Ont. near Hamilton, have painted conflicting portraits of a neighbour whom authorities arrested on Saturday for allegedly attempting to sell naval secrets to China.
The RCMP announced they had charged Qing Quentin Huang, 53, for allegedly trying to sell sensitive information on the Canadian government’s shipbuilding procurement strategy. The national plan includes building patrol ships, frigates, naval auxiliary vessels, science research vessels and icebreakers.
At the time of his arrest, Huang worked as an engineer for the Burlington office of the international shipbuilding firm Lloyd’s Register. But he resided, at least part of the time, on a leafy suburban street in nearby Waterdown, where, according to some neighbours, he led a mysterious, mostly quiet life.
Joel Reynolds, who has lived on Brookhurst Crescent for about year, said he’d only spoken to Huang on a few occasions, but said the 53-year-old was “friendly.”
“He introduced himself to me the first time I saw him. It was sort of a ‘Hello, how are you doing?’ kind of interaction that we had,” Reynolds told CBC News on Sunday.
“Other than that, it was just ‘Hello,’ but no problems at all, though.”
New cars, visits from police
'There was something strange about him, right from day one.' —Robert Dixon, Waterdown resident
In contrast, Robert Dixon characterized Huang as a “pretty strange guy” who made lavish purchases and whose house was occasionally visited by police.
“There was something strange about him, right from day one,” said Dixon, who estimated Huang had lived in Waterdown for about five years.
Huang acted as though “money was no issue whatsoever,” Dixon said.
“He just bought cars. ‘Oh, look my new car.’ The stuff in the house, everything was brand new and pretty elaborate. It’s clean and it has a lot of new items just kind of randomly put there.”
Dixon, who had on occasion helped Huang move items around the house, said he found it odd that his neighbour kept “a huge grandfather clock in the doorway with the price tag on it.”
It wasn’t just Huang’s possessions that struck Dixon as unusual. Police knocked on the engineer’s door on a number of occasions in response to arguments emanating from the house, Dixon said.
He said a woman who often accompanied Huang would sometimes kick the front door repeatedly, demanding to be allowed inside.
“Actually, you can see the footprints of where she would just keep kicking, wanting him to let her in,” said Dixon. “And then she would just sort of wander around the neighbourhood.
“It all seemed really strange.”
Huang’s arrest came as a “pretty big surprise” to Kieran McCowell, another resident of Brookhurst Crescent.
He said he believes Huang is currently renting out the house, and may have been living somewhere else.
“He didn’t really come out a lot. We see his tenants a lot, but they would never have any information on this."
Employed at Burlington shipbuilding company since 2006
At a news conference in Toronto on Sunday, the RCMP announced they had arrested Huang in Burlington on Saturday and charged him under the Security of Information Act.
Authorities allege Huang acted alone and is not believed to have been state-sponsored.
At the time of his arrest, Huang was employed as an engineer at Lloyd’s Register’s Burlington office, where he has worked since 2006, according to a statement released by the U.K.-based company.
Lloyd’s Register is one of several firms working on Canada’s national shipbuilding procurement strategy. In particular, the company is assessing vessel designs for the federal government's Arctic Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) program.
“Mr. Huang did not have security clearance and was therefore not involved in any approvals of AOPS and did not have direct access to information on AOPS,” said Lloyd’s Register spokesman Mark Stokes in a written statement.
“Mr. Huang is being suspended forthwith without pay until the matter is fully investigated and resolved,” he added.
“We are doing everything we can to assist the RCMP with their investigation and at this stage can offer no further comments or facts until we know more ourselves."
Charges carry possible life sentence
RCMP Chief Supt. Jennifer Strachan said police first learned of the case on Thursday after Huang communicated with someone at the Chinese embassy in Ottawa, but would not say if that was how they became aware of Huang's alleged activities.
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She said several agencies — including the RCMP, CSIS and local police forces — came together and worked quickly to disrupt the "threat" to national security.
"In these types of cases, sharing of information may give a foreign entity a tactical, military or competitive advantage by knowing the specifications of vessels responsible for defending Canadian waters and Canadian sovereignty," Strachan said.
She called it valuable research and development information that could also provide an unfair competitive and economic advantage.
Authorities said they are not aware of any threat to public safety stemming from the case.
A spokesman from the Prime Minster's Office commended the RCMP and the other agencies involved for their work. "This arrest demonstrates the importance of collaboration among security partners for the protection of Canada's national interest," Jason MacDonald said in a statement.
Public safety minister Steven Blaney applauded the team's “vigilance,” adding that "the safeguarding of sensitive information remains fundamental to protecting Canada's interests and National sovereignty."
Huang is set to appear in court Wednesday for a bail hearing. He faces two counts related to communicating classified information to a foreign entity, which officials said could carry a sentence of life in prison.