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Man accused of selling counterfeit microchips had a passion for drag racing

Shannon Wren has a taste for fast and fancy cars.

In his youth, he and other late-night thrill seekers liked to block off the Gandy Bridge and race across the bay.

Two years ago, he made drag racing history in his green Mustang by hitting 200 mph without crashing.

And earlier this week, when federal agents descended on his mid-Pinellas computer components company, they confiscated a Ferrari, a Mercedes and a Bentley.

Wren, 42, was indicted this week by a federal grand jury in Washington on charges that he sold $16 million worth of counterfeit computer chips to the U.S. Navy and some of its weapons contractors.

The chips were supposed to be brand name, "military grade'' integrated circuits, the indictment said, but in fact were counterfeits from China and Hong Kong.

Though these specific chips may not have made their way into weapons systems, the indictment says, counterfeits potentially "put lives and property at risk'' and can serve as tiny Trojan horses, allowing hackers to disrupt U.S. systems.

Wren, of 11200 Fifth Street E, Treasure Island, was unavailable for comment. He was being held Wednesday in the Pinellas County Jail for pick up by federal marshals.

A woman who answered the door at his Clearwater company, VisionTech Components, declined to comment, saying "nobody is interested in the truth.''

Wren also owns Reborn Couture, a trendy apparel and accessories store in Tampa's SoHo district, along with Nevada Vanderford, who identified herself as his fiancee two years ago when the store opened. On Wednesday, a sign on the shop's door said, "Closed for family emergency.''

Family members and friends of Wren's either could not be reached or declined to comment. But various public records, websites and one acquaintance from Pinellas Park's SunShine Dragstrip filled in some of the blanks.

Wren was born in Mississippi and got his first driver's license there.

But "he has lived around here forever,'' said Rob Cossack, photographer at the dragstrip. "He had the reputation, like other local guys, of coming up from street racing'' on the Gandy Bridge.

Later Wren competed in SunShine's "radial tire'' division, a subset of "outlaw racing,'' which just means rules are looser and races aren't sanctioned by the National Hot Road Association.

Wren began gaining notice on Internet racing sites with "Project X,'' a souped up, spray painted 1993 Chevy Nova. Then he modified a 1995 twin-turbo Mustang and hit 200 mph at the 2008 Mid-South Street Shootout in Memphis, a drag-racing first.

"He was one of those guys who wanted to do something big,'' Cossack said. "He was certainly involved in building cutting-edge stuff.''

Wren is an amiable, generous man, Cossack said. If his company sold counterfeit chips, he said, "I wouldn't be surprised to find out that he didn't know about it.''

VisionTech's website says it began operations in 2002 and carries a multimillion dollar inventory, with more than 4,000 line items and a specialty in obsolete and hard-to-find parts.

In his 2005 divorce, Wren valued VisionTech at $1 million. As assets, he also listed 19 cars, trailers, trucks and motors worth $474,500 and a $12,000 boat.

The indictment says VisionTech sold about 60,000 counterfeit chips during 31 sales from 2007 through 2009. The chips carried brand names like Texas Instruments and Motorola, but were actually imports from China.

Military grade chips cost more and must withstand extreme temperatures and vibration. Some chips were intended for a ship-board antenna system that identifies friendly aircraft from enemy planes, the indictment said. Others were intended for ballistic missile control.

Two sales went to a California firm that resold one of the components to undercover federal investigators. The owner and manager of that firm have pleaded guilty to criminal charges and are cooperating with investigators, the indictment said.

Agents then made two undercover buys of counterfeit components directly from VisionTech, the indictment said, one in 2009 and the other this July.

In an e-mail statement, Defense Department spokeswoman Wendy Snyder said the military has several programs to identify counterfeit gear, including testing of critical components when the military takes possession of them.

They have found no cases "where counterfeit parts have caused failure of (Defense Department) missions, equipment, or placed our troops at risk," she wrote.

Robert Castro isn't so sure.

Castro, who owned American Data in Tampa, is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer. In 2004, he said, he unwittingly bought dozens of counterfeit, high-tech computer switches.

He bought them from a reputable Tampa Bay company, intending to resell them to Lockheed Martin for $554,000. Lockheed, in turn, would sell them to the U.S. Navy. Some were even installed in submarines.

But Castro learned later the switches originated with sophisticated counterfeiters in China. The bad deal drove Castro's company into bankruptcy, he said.

Castro doesn't understand how the military can be so certain that counterfeits pose no security threat.

"Because the government and the military buys so much technology from so many sources, they don't have the scientists or the expertise to check everything. They just take the word of the vendor that the stuff is genuine."

Counterfeits are difficult to ferret out, he said, because the technology often works, even if not as reliably as genuine product might.

Wren is charged with conspiracy, trafficking in counterfeit goods and mail fraud. He could get up to 35 years in prison.

Also charged was VisionTech's manager, Stephanie McCloskey, of 2092 Whitney Place in Clearwater. She was released on $25,000 bail, prosecutors said. She could not be reached Wednesday for comment.

Times staff writers Rodney Thrash, Shelley Rossetter, Jamal Thalji and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Man accused of selling counterfeit microchips had a passion for drag racing 09/15/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 16, 2010 12:12pm]
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