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Parents get Washington to investigate son's death in Singapore

Singapore police say Montana engineer Shane Todd committed suicide. But his mother and father don't buy it and have turned his death into an international issue.

March 30, 2013|By Wes Venteicher, Los Angeles Times
  • Shane Todd, shown in Singapore, had been planning to start a new job in the U.S. before his alleged suicide.
Shane Todd, shown in Singapore, had been planning to start a new job in the… (HONS, AP )

WASHINGTON — After Shane Todd, an engineer from Montana, was found hanging by the neck in an apartment in Singapore, police there quickly ruled the 31-year-old's death a suicide, citing evidence including an apologetic note typed on his computer and a description of an elaborate pulley system the 6-foot-1 man allegedly used to hang himself from a bathroom door.

But when his parents visited his apartment a few days later, they found an external computer hard drive that they think tells a different story — one that suggests their son may have been inadvertently caught up in a plot to transfer sensitive technology to China. They say Todd told them in the weeks before he died that he feared for his life, and they do not believe he killed himself.

"He was murdered," Mary Todd said in an interview.

Since their son died in June, Mary and Rick Todd have brought their case to Washington, getting Montana's two senators, the FBI, the State Department and the Singapore Embassy involved and making his death an international issue.

"A lot of this doesn't add up, and it seems a bit fishy," Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said at a news conference on the death. "I have deep concerns about potential foul play, about a potential breach of national security. But I don't have the facts yet, and I don't want to jump to conclusions until I have the facts."

Baucus and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) pressured Singapore into agreeing to cooperate with an independent FBI investigation. They have also introduced legislation to stop U.S. funding to the Institute for Microelectronics, or IME, the Singaporean government research firm where Shane Todd worked for 18 months.

Todd died the night after his last day of work at IME. He had been researching technologies involving gallium nitride, a semiconductor able to tolerate extreme heat and having commercial applications as well as military uses. His parents said he had told them he suspected IME was engaged in activities that could threaten U.S. national security, including collaborating with Huawei Technologies, a Chinese telecommunications company that a congressional inquiry found to be a potential security threat.

Singapore Minister of Foreign Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam said Singapore police would share with the FBI evidence they had been withholding. Shanmugam also said IME would be open to a U.S. audit of its activities. The announcement came amid meetings with Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., Baucus and others. Singapore police have also reopened their own investigation.

IME and Huawei have denied working together. IME has said Todd was not involved in any "classified research project." Huawei has said the company was approached by IME about a gallium nitride project but decided against it.

"We were approached at one time by IME about cooperation in the [gallium nitride] field," said William Plummer, Huawei's vice president of external affairs. "No, we did not pursue this beyond the preliminary overture from IME. No, we do not have any cooperation with IME related to [gallium nitride]."

The company, like its peers in the telecommunications industry, is focused on developing the substance for commercial applications, Plummer said.

But Shane Todd's last communications, combined with incongruities at the scene of his death and details that emerged afterward, have convinced his parents someone is hiding something.

The Todds said a U.S. pathologist they commissioned to examine the body said he found bruise marks that indicated their strapping son died after a struggle.

They said they had the hard drive analyzed by a computer specialist in Texas, who discovered it had been filled with information the day their son died. Mary Todd said it contains files related to gallium nitride, IME and Huawei.

While in Singapore, the Todd family also visited a police office. There, an officer read them a description of how their son had died. The account "read like a novel," said Mary Todd — detailing the complicated system of pulleys and straps that police said he used to hang himself from the bathroom door. After that, the officer handed the Todds a suicide note printed from their son's computer. Mary Todd said she knew her son had not written the note by the time she finished reading the first paragraph.

In the note, Shane Todd thanked his employer for giving him every opportunity to succeed, and apologized for disappointing his family. It dedicated two short sentences to his brothers, who his mother said were "his best friends."

"It wasn't our son, at all," Mary Todd said.

Despite a brief bout with anxiety in college, during which Shane Todd was prescribed antidepressants for three months, his parents saw little reason to believe their son would kill himself.

His death followed a farewell party earlier in the day with a group of friends and co-workers, Mary Todd said. He had accepted another job in the U.S., and had recently emailed his new boss about his start date and other details. He had planned to spend some time with his family in Montana before starting the new job.

"If we're wrong and he hung himself, we're not afraid to find that out," Mary Todd said. "So far there has not been a thread of evidence to show that."

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