Last June, UCSB Electrical Engineering Ph.D. graduate Shane Todd was found dead in his Singapore apartment on the eve of his return to the United States.
Todd had just finished his work on Gallium Nitride (GaN) with the Institute for Microelectronics (IME) — a telecommunication company with ties to the Singaporean government. Though the Singapore Police Force initially ruled his death as a suicide by hanging, Todd’s parents made calls for an additional investigation by the FBI. Case evidence — including a suspiciously uncharacteristic suicide note — had raised suspicions that suicide may not have been the cause of death.
According to electrical and computer engineering professor Robert York, who worked closely with Todd on research, Todd’s parents argued that their son’s research had drawn some concerning attention. Todd was working on a project with the Chinese telecommunication firm Huawei, which the House Intelligence Committee labeled a U.S. security threat last October, and Todd had allegedly expressed anxiety about his job threatening U.S. security, according to York.
Furthermore, it seems unlikely that Todd would have committed suicide since the engineering graduate had already made arrangements to return home and even had a new job lined up in the U.S., according to York.
“A lot of us who know Shane find it very hard to believe just because of the sort of person that he was. You know, he was a very outgoing guy, had a lot of friends,” York said. “It just doesn’t add up. So it seems very suspicious, but there’s nothing exactly to point to say he was murdered.”
Although Gallium Nitride is a newer technology used mostly for civilian purposes such as LED lighting, it can also have military applications due to its ability to create fast and powerful transistors used in radars and satellites, which could give other militaries an edge over the U.S.
“So it’s a very powerful material system for electronics, and a lot of our own defense contractors in the U.S. have very, very strong active research development programs,” York said. “You know, a lot of what’s known about materials and devices are public domain. It’s presented in scholarly research, journals and conferences — things like that. It’s really a mystery to me why someone would think that it’s so important that they needed to kill Shane.”
Todd’s untimely death caught political traction after an in-depth investigation published in the “Financial Times” lead to Montana Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester to push for U.S. intervention. In March, they introduced a measure to block U.S. funding to IME until federal law enforcement was given access to all records in relation to Todd’s death.
Following a meeting with Baucus and Secretary of State John Kerry, Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam — Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Law — announced in March that the SPF would perform another investigation in cooperation with the FBI. Shanmugam also said the SPF will share any information it has with the FBI in exchange for aid in analyzing a hard drive found in Todd’s apartment. This hard drive supposedly contains evidence of Huawei’s involvement in the project, but the Todd family only agreed to have its content seen by the FBI.
Although the FBI declined to comment on case details, an unnamed State Department official who requested they remain anonymous said the case is ongoing and officials are awaiting a U.S. Coroner’s decision to be made on May 13.
“The investigation into Shane’s death continues to be led by the Singaporean police, and the FBI and the U.S. Embassy continue discussions with Singaporean authorities,” the official said in an email. “Recent meetings between the FBI and the Singapore authorities have resulted in good cooperation in accordance with the legal framework of both countries.”
According to an IME-provided statement in an email, Todd joined the company on Dec. 1, 2010 as an entry-level researcher in the Sensors and Actuators Microsystems research group. In March 2011, he expressed interest in working in the new Gallium Nitride Programme and was transferred to the Gallium Nitride research group in July 2011, with no prior experience in the field of Gallium Nitride.
However, the statement said IME and Huawei have denied Todd’s involvement on a joint project, stating that although the two companies considered a partnership for a time, they “did not go beyond preliminary talks.” This suggests that claims Todd had worked with Huawei were based merely on speculation, however IME still offered condolences to Todd’s family.
“Notwithstanding the unfortunate consequences arising from the speculative media reports, central to this tragic incident is the demise of one of our own,” the statement said. “We deeply grieve his loss and will for a long time to come. Our thoughts are with him and his family.”