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Retired PPG chemist's suicide won't stop spy probe

| Saturday, June 6, 2015, 10:57 p.m.

Accused spy Thomas Rukavina killed himself Friday evening in his Plum home, but the federal probe involving industrial trade secrets, Chinese espionage and possible co-conspirators here and abroad continues.

As a result of a Saturday afternoon autopsy, the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office ruled that Rukavina, 62, a retired PPG Industries chemist, died from asphyxiation by hanging himself, an electronic monitoring device still looped around his ankle.

FBI agents arrested Rukavina on May 7, alleging that he plotted nearly a year ago to sell PPG “Opticor” manufacturing plans to J.T.M.G. Co., a glass-making competitor based in Jiangsu, China.

One of the largest technological leaps for PPG in a half-century, the transparent plastic Opticor is used in a range of specialty windows, from high-speed trains to military jets.

PPG is the sole worldwide supplier of it, and Rukavina was on the Opticor development team, retiring in mid-2012 as PPG ramped up production. Because of its importance to national security, the State Department bans the transfer of Opticor secrets without a special permit.

In the criminal complaint supporting his indictment, federal agents maintained that Rukavina reached out to the Chinese and offered to turn other unnamed American experts to aid competitors abroad. In one email intercepted by investigators, Rukavina pledged the Chinese “access to all of PPG technology since 1947!!,” according to court documents.

U.S. Attorney David Hickton in Pittsburgh told the Tribune-Review that the FBI will continue to spearhead the spy probe but couldn't be more specific due to the “sensitive nature” of the case.

Rukavina's suicide ends the criminal proceedings against him, but Hickton said the investigation will highlight the “top priority to protect the intellectual property of companies in this country.”

Trade secrets shipped to China hurt American workers and investors, he added. The Chinese embassy did not return messages seeking comment.

For 20 days after his arrest, Rukavina remained in the Allegheny County Jail, pending a psychiatric examination. His attorney, Lee M. Rothman, said Rukavina's struggle inside the jail with insomnia, severe anxiety and chronic depression hampered his ability to forge a defense.

He believed that Rukavina could get better care under house arrest. Concerned that he would harm himself, federal prosecutors opposed his release.

On May 27, U.S. Magistrate Judge Maureen Kelly allowed Rukavina to drop his request for a competency hearing, letting him leave jail on a $100,000 unsecured bond. However, she ordered Rukavina to surrender his shotgun to Rothman and to forgo “excessively” drinking alcohol while confined to his home.

When contacted by the Trib, Rothman declined to discuss the case. Rukavina's relatives did not return messages seeking comment.

Despite opposing Rukavina's release, Hickton said no one should be blamed for Rukavina's “sad and tragic” death.

Carl Prine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7826 or cprine@tribweb.com.

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