BEIJING – Nine days had passed since Jeff Gillis, at home in Houston, Texas, had last heard from his wife. During that phone call, she told Gillis she was extending her business trip in China, but he grew anxious. He filed a missing person's report with U.S. consular officials whose response left him flabbergasted: His wife, a business consultant, had been detained by Chinese state security agents almost two weeks earlier.
Now, 18 months later, Phan Phan-Gillis is still detained, charged with spying and awaiting trial in China, consigned to an unknown fate in a highly opaque and impenetrable legal system in which even the charges brought against her remain cloudy. Gillis says that his wife appears to have been accused of spying against China two decades ago, although even her Chinese lawyer says he has been barred by Chinese law from providing details.
Despite the scant information, Gillis has set about trying to prove his 56-year-old wife's innocence. He hopes documents he has uncovered will help free Phan-Gillis, known as Sandy to friends. Her lawyer says her trial has been postponed indefinitely from its original Sept. 19 court date.
The case speaks to both rising suspicion between Beijing and Washington and China's drive to pursue those accused of crimes occurring outside its borders. Gillis says part of the charge relates to alleged spying carried out within the United States.
"China probably is now more aggressive in pursuing anyone who can be regarded as harming China's interests," said Fu Hualing, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong.
"If they think there's a violation of Chinese criminal law and the impact is felt within China they are willing to pursue that and they think that they probably have the capacity to do that now," he said. "Imagine: The case happened in the '90s. It's not like it happened recently."
Phan-Gillis' lawyer, Shang Baojun, said the American is charged with spying, but that he could not provide details because the case involves state secrets. The maximum sentence for spying is the death penalty.
The court in Nanning, a city in southern China near the Vietnamese border, also refused to release specifics about the case.
"It is a closed trial because it involves state secrets, so it is inappropriate for us to release information ... including the date of the trial," said Tang Xingzhong, administrative head at the Nanning Intermediate People's Court. Calls to the prosecutor in charge of the case rang unanswered.
Jeff Gillis, 54, said the charge relates to "beyond ridiculous" allegations that Phan-Gillis went on a spy mission to Nanning in 1996, then returned to the U.S. and recruited Chinese citizens to work for a foreign spy organization within the United States in 1997 and 1998. He says the foreign spy organization is alleged to be the FBI. The bureau's press office declined to comment.
Nanning is the capital of Guangxi, a poor farming region neighboring Guangdong province, where Phan-Gillis' family has its roots. Ethnically Chinese, Phan-Gillis was born in Vietnam and left that country as a teenager after the end of the Vietnam War, ending up via a harrowing boat journey in a refugee camp in Malaysia. She became an American citizen, met Gillis in 2001 and married him a year later.
Gillis said his wife, a consultant who matched investors with projects, traveled to China numerous times on business and as a volunteer to promote cultural and business exchanges and better health care. Most of her trips have been to the southern business centers of Shenzhen and Guangzhou. Gillis said he had never heard his wife mention Guangxi until she brought it up in a phone call during her detention — his first clue in his quest to free her.
Phan-Gillis was detained in March 2015; that September, Gillis quit his job as a U.S. production services manager for an oilfield services company to focus full time on freeing her. He remains in Houston; lawyers told him he should not come to China for the trial.
Gillis started reading up on how Chinese cases work, and knew that he and the lawyers would only have a short window to prepare a defense once charges were filed and revealed to them.
Lawyer Shang said they could read Phan-Gillis' case file only in early September — more than six weeks after she was indicted. Her legal team is not allowed to photocopy or take photos of the hundreds of pages.
"We can only copy it by hand," Shang said.
Gillis knew virtually nothing about why his wife was in custody before he received an unexpected phone call about a year ago. At the time, Chinese President Xi Jinping was in the U.S. meeting President Barack Obama, and Gillis had just started a media campaign to coincide with Xi's visit.
It was his wife. She frantically asked him to stop.
"She was pretty much begging me to tell the people who were on the phone in the room with her that I was going to stop the media campaign," Gillis said by phone from Houston. But she was also allowed to tell him that "the case involved some people who she had known from Guangxi over 20 years ago."
Soon, he was digging through his wife's old files, sorting them by year. When he learned more about the accusations he went straight to the boxes labeled "1996," ''1997" and "1998."
"The house still looks like a warehouse. I have boxes stacked everywhere," he said.
Gillis is thankful for his wife's tendency to hoard, because she left behind documents that show she couldn't have been present for the offenses he says she is accused of committing.
"I have the passport that shows that she didn't even have a visa in '96, no entries or exits. I have her pay stubs that show that she was not off on extended leave."
He has found old receipts and a newspaper article with a photograph of Phan-Gillis attending a horse event in Houston when she is alleged to have been in China. He has submitted the documents to his wife's lawyers, and has pressed politicians to write letters on her behalf.
U.S. consular officials are allowed to visit Phan-Gillis once a month. Gillis said she told them that threats and relentless interrogation sessions caused her to suffer a heart attack.
"Hearing how they had treated her, it made me cry," he said.
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said that China "continues to withhold many details of the case."
"We remain deeply concerned about Ms. Phan-Gillis' welfare and continue to monitor her case closely," he said in a statement.