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UF bans student from campus for 3 years over illegal plot to ship drugs, toxins to China

The University of Florida on Saturday banned a student from its property for three years who the Justice Department accused of being involved in a multi-million dollar scheme to divert biomedical samples of dangerous drugs and toxins from a campus laboratory to China.

Nongnong "Leticia" Zheng, 21, a senior marketing major in the business school and president of UF’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association, has not been formally charged with any crime. She confirmed in an interview Friday that the Justice Department notified her a year ago she was a target of a grand jury investigation and could face prison or deportation.

Zheng declined Saturday to discuss UF’s decision to ban her from campus until May 2027. She referred questions to her federal public defender, Ryan Maguire of Tampa, who did not immediately respond to messages asking about the case.

The university, through a spokesman, also declined Saturday to discuss its decision.

Zheng said she expected to graduate in May 2025. Students who are physically banned from campus can, in some cases, attend classes virtually. She said she had been warned she faced suspension.

"The charge was severe and can suspend me to study UF in the future," she said in broken English in an interview Friday. "It can also make me deportable in this state. So, that was the only thing I was super worried about. I definitely wanted to finish my degree right now."

UF’s spokesman, Steve Orlando, had said Friday that, “Employees who break the law will be separated from employment, and students who break the law will face suspension.” Orlando said the university had been working for weeks with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tampa, where the case was being investigated.

Prosecutors filed criminal charges against three men who ran the scheme two months ago – including details that implicated a UF research employee and an unspecified number of students. They said the scheme to divert the shipments started in 2016, but Zheng had been involved only since last year.

In court records, federal prosecutors cited the role of a UF student they identified only as “Leticia” who was among students paid by organizers off campus to order small amounts of highly purified drugs – known as analytical standards – of fentanyl, morphine, MDMA, cocaine, ketamine, codeine, methamphetamine, amphetamine, acetylmorphine and methadone. The substances were delivered to a campus laboratory, then the organizers illicitly shipped the items to China.

The materials smuggled to China also included what the government described as purified, non-contagious proteins of the cholera toxin and pertussis toxin, which causes whooping cough.

Zheng was a marketing major at UF who agreed to change her UF email signature to falsely represent that she was a biomedical engineering student to purchase items without raising suspicions, prosecutors said. In one email, she falsely said she was “working in collaboration with other researchers” in biotechnology and requesting “a good price since we will be purchasing these items routinely,” according to court records.

Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, identified “Leticia” as Zheng on Friday using biographical clues in university records shared by none of the other 58,441 UF students enrolled last semester.

Zheng is president of the Chinese student and scholars group, which describes itself as officially approved by the Chinese embassy. The group has protested a Florida law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last year that limits universities from recruiting students and faculty from China – and bans employing such students from working in academic labs without special permission.

She said in a tearful Friday interview she was worried about being sent back to China, where she has lived most of her life.

“All I was thinking about every day is that I can suddenly get deported,” she said.

Zheng said she didn’t know what she was doing was wrong until she received a letter from the Justice Department saying she was being investigated. She said she thought her boss – who prosecutors described as the scheme’s ringleader – was odd. Each time she approached him about his unusual behavior — such as a lack of paperwork or consistent payments for her administrative work — he reassured her.

Pen “Ben” Yu, 51, of Gibsonton, Florida, near Tampa, has pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and faces up to 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine when he is sentenced on Aug. 2. Prosecutors described Yu and the other organizers of the scheme as American citizens.

It wasn’t clear who Yu was working for in China. In intercepted messages, the government said he referred to his superior only as his boss.

Zheng said Yu appealed to her difficulties finding work as an international student. Foreign students on educational visas, such as Zheng, are limited in how or whether they can work for pay. She said she wanted to be a well-rounded student with an impressive resume.

“It was like my first work that I found myself,” she said Friday. “I don't know the process of getting hiring and stuff. I didn't realize that it was so suspicious.”

Prosecutors said Yu provided Zheng with a credit card in February 2023 to pay for fraudulent orders and for Yu to compensate her. She said in an interview she was promised $25 per hour, but the only payment she ever received was a Best Buy gift card to purchase a new laptop so she could better work for Yu.

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at mcupelli@ufl.edu. You can donate to support our students here.

Matthew is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.