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The Case of the $100 Million Blueprints


Photograph of Blueprints

A Kentucky mechanic named Jonathan Sanders was looking for a way to market himself to a recruiter for a rival technology company. He found it, all right—in the trash. In this company’s confidential waste bin, to be exact.

And what exactly did he find? More than 800 blueprints, the complete specs for the innovative equipment his New York-based business used to make LCD (liquid crystal display) screens found on high-end TVs and computer monitors. Turns out, the screens manufactured by this company were considered among the best in the industry…thanks largely to the equipment housed in the plant where Sanders worked. The company later estimated the blueprints’ worth at $100 million.

Sanders knew he had something of value…so criminally, he carted the blueprints home. He’d already been contacted by a recruiter from a start-up based overseas that wanted to enter the glass-screen making business and was hiring workers from his plant to help get them started. After finding the blueprints—a discovery he called “perfect timing”—Sanders met with the recruiter again and mentioned the designs. Surprise, surprise: he was offered a job on the spot for $125,000.

Sanders eventually decided he didn’t want to move overseas. But he made the recruiter a counter offer: he’d sell him the blueprints for cash. Working through a middleman, Sanders later sold them for two payments totaling $34,000.

How’d we catch him? The overseas competitor began replicating the equipment and eventually asked a manufacturer in the U.S. to make a key part. The manufacturer recognized the technology and contacted Sanders’ company, which called the FBI.

Our subsequent investigation was slowed at times by a civil case between the two rival companies. Agents eventually interviewed employees at Sanders’ plant…and talked with Sanders in October 2005. He pled guilty in January to one count of conspiracy to commit trade secret theft and was sentenced to four years in prison in April.

“When we interviewed him, Sanders said he came to work every day wondering if today would be the day he gets caught. It finally was,” said Special Agent Mark Thompson of our Buffalo, New York, field office, who led the investigation.

So what’s the lesson?Protect those trade secrets. Sanders’ company was fortunate that the theft was discovered before the competitor’s plant became operational. “Stealing trade secrets is worse than stealing money from a company. It’s like robbing a company’s future,” Thompson said.

To learn more about the multi-billion criminal enterprise of economic espionage and how to protect your business from it, see our Counterintelligence webpage.