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Snagging a Rogue Snitch

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Times Staff Writers

The black sedans arrived late in the day. Six federal agents in windbreakers got out, walked into Nabil Ismael’s tobacco store and closed the cuffs around his wrists.

He was looking at 20 years for drug conspiracy, one agent said.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 3, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday December 03, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 70 words Type of Material: Correction
An article in Friday’s Section A about a man wrongly set up by a DEA informant inaccurately described a nickname given by defense lawyer Ian Loveseth to his client Nabil Ismael. The article stated that the nickname unfavorably compared the size of Ismael’s brain to another part of his anatomy, which could be read as a denigration of Ismael’s intelligence. In coining the nickname, Loveseth sought to capture Ismael’s bravery.

Ismael felt sick. He’d been helping the government make its case. Didn’t they know that? “It was the worst day of my life,” said Ismael, 29. “And I figured that Essam was behind the whole thing.”

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Essam Magid, 43, had befriended Ismael, a fellow Yemeni, the year before. He said he worked for the Drug Enforcement Administration. If Ismael could help locate some cocaine connections, Magid said, Ismael would be in line for a federal job and a better life.

The idea of working for America stirred the young immigrant’s patriotism, he says. So he agreed.

By the time he suspected he was being framed, it was too late.

Prosecutors eventually offered Ismael a deal of four years in prison. If he had accepted the offer and pleaded guilty, he would have become the latest of at least a dozen defendants locked away because of one of the DEA’s more controversial informants.

Instead, he took on the machine of a federal prosecution. In doing so, he exposed two agencies plagued by problems in their handling of confidential sources: A U.S. Department of Justice inspector general audit this summer found that problems persist with the DEA’s informant system, despite an agency admission in 2001 of “system failures” and a pledge to reform.

Meanwhile, a recent inspector general’s investigation of the FBI’s informant program noted violations in that agency’s use of snitches in 87% of cases reviewed.

Ismael’s case ultimately made public what federal agents and some prosecutors had known for years: Magid was out of control.

*

In May 2003, Ismael was a salesman at Platinum Motors, a luxury used-car lot in the Bay Area suburb of San Bruno.

A talkative Magid stopped by the dealership one day to introduce himself. He flattered the young salesman, telling him he could certainly do better than working for $36,000 a year and no benefits.

Speaking in Arabic, Magid disclosed that he worked for the government, Ismael later recalled in an interview and in testimony. He said there might well be a job for Ismael too -- if he was willing to help the United States.

Magid said he needed Ismael’s help with an official investigation. He was looking to buy 15 to 30 kilos of cocaine as part of a government sting. He needed introductions to people who knew others up the drug ladder. After the deal went down, he said, Magid would get Ismael the full-time government job.

Although he had no history of drug crimes, Ismael approached regulars at the dealership, explaining that Magid wanted to ship cocaine to Hawaii.

It’s not clear whether Magid’s primary government contact, DEA agent Dwayne Bareng, knew of the promises Magid had made to Ismael, but the agent soon got involved.

On June 18, 2003, Magid arrived at the lot with Bareng. In a ponytail and flowered Hawaiian shirt, the agent posed as an island drug dealer named Ricky. Over Ismael’s objections, “Ricky” insisted on paying him $600 for the contacts he provided.

Magid was soon not only making contacts at the lot, he was also exchanging drugs there.

Worried that he was being set up, Ismael quit his job in August 2003 to avoid Magid. In the coming months, they met just once.

Then, in October 2004, Magid called Ismael to tell him the big buy had been made. Ismael said he refused any payment and hung up. Still, a week later, agents arrested him. Also charged were a limo driver, a garbage collector and two brothers, one of whom had delivered five kilos of cocaine to federal agents.

*

Ismael’s lawyer, Ian Loveseth, advised his client to take the plea deal that prosecutors offered. Ismael’s wife was pregnant, and if he lost at trial, the young father would be sent away for a minimum of 20 years. But Ismael, a devout Muslim, refused, saying he couldn’t lie to Allah and “admit to something that wasn’t my intent.”

Loveseth, a veteran defense attorney, wasn’t pleased. He gave Ismael a crass nickname that unfavorably compared the size of his brain to another part of his anatomy.

Based on what Ismael had told him, the defense would need to demonstrate at trial that Magid was a liar. And getting information on an undercover informant would be extremely difficult.

Under federal law, defendants are not entitled to information about a snitch until they take the gamble to go to trial. Even then, the information supplied to defense attorneys is often extremely sketchy. In past cases involving Magid, federal prosecutors had released only a one-paragraph DEA letter describing him as problem-free.

Starting with little more than Magid’s name and the few facts Ismael was able to provide, Loveseth’s investigator, Don Criswell, soon obtained Magid’s computerized rap sheet, which detailed a criminal trail from New York to California. More information emerged as Criswell, a former police detective, traversed the Central Valley interviewing Magid’s friends and enemies.

At 5 feet 1, Magid was a big talker with a taste for Courvoisier and women, Criswell soon learned.

He and his young bride, Eshraq Abdulla, had arrived in the U.S. on visitor visas in 1985. Settling in Brooklyn, Magid found work at corner grocery stores.

As their family grew, the couple’s love soured. He would “lose his mind completely” when drinking, recalled Abdulla in an interview with The Times, and beat her often. Magid quit work, hatching a scheme with friends to print fake checks.

In 1996, Magid was charged with forgery and money laundering, and soon after, Abdulla left with the couple’s six children.

“He’s not stupid,” she said. “But he never used his skills as a smart person in the right stuff. He used it always ... trying to trick people, to lie.”

Sentenced to five years’ probation and facing mounting debt, Magid fled New York. In 1997, he was prosecuted on a charge of assaulting a police officer in Norfolk, Va. The outcome of that case is unclear because Magid’s record was sealed when he became an informant. Two years later, he was living in California, where he chalked up arrests for drunk driving and giving false information to a police officer.

Then Magid got lucky.

In 1999, he and several others were arrested in Lodi trying to sell 50 cases of pseudoephedrine -- a key ingredient in methamphetamine -- to a DEA informant posing as a would-be buyer.

Handling the drug investigation was Bareng, who three years earlier had left the grind of inmate transport at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for the bigger stage of undercover federal drug work.

Magid was facing a 20-year sentence, but the government offered to reduce the charges in exchange for cooperation in its campaign to contain the growing meth trade in Middle Eastern communities across the Central Valley. Federal officials also arranged for annual visa extensions -- as long as Magid remained useful.

Kicked loose from custody, a destitute Magid made his way to Stockton, where Gaber Anwallah, the cousin of a co-defendant, let Magid stay in a trailer behind his store, the Paisano Market.

Magid was a skilled chameleon: At times he said he was Christian, at others Muslim. His jokes, often told in Arabic, helped him win people’s confidence. He immediately started gathering and passing on drug intelligence, court testimony shows.

On the job, he recruited with abandon, viewing most Yemenis, it seems, as either potential snitches, prosecution targets or both. His private life remained troubled. Child support cases were filed against him in two California counties.

*

Documents released piecemeal by Assistant U.S. Atty. Alexis Hunter showed that Magid’s government work was lucrative and far-reaching.

In exchange for information, the DEA, FBI, IRS and other agencies paid the informant hundreds of thousands of dollars. Prosecutors dismissed some felony charges against him and sought to expunge others.

And they seemed to ignore his many lapses.

DEA documents showed that Magid perjured himself in small claims court at Bareng’s direction. Criswell’s interviews revealed that Magid also intimidated a witness and used his government clout for personal gain.

And in one case, FBI records revealed, he even exposed the identity of federal agents to the target of a terrorist probe.

The earliest record of Magid’s problems as a snitch came from that agency. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the FBI summoned the drug informant for a higher calling, assuming exclusive control of his activities. For his new role, Magid received a James Bond-like pager that doubled as a recording device.

The specifics of Magid’s FBI work remain classified. But he often spoke to others about it. Behind the wheel of his latest upscale rental car, Magid glided one day into the Paisano Market parking lot in Stockton.

“Look what I got,” he boasted to Abdul Anwallah, Gaber’s brother. “They gave it to me.”

“Who did?” asked Abdul, who recounted the exchange in an interview with The Times.

“The people I work with,” Magid responded. “The FBI.”

In August 2002, a belligerent Magid flaunted his undercover status to Stockton police officers who took him into custody after a drunken brawl.

Two months later, he revealed the first names of two FBI agents to the target of a terror investigation -- something the FBI could not ignore.

Summoned for a polygraph test on Oct. 23, 2002, Magid denied wrongdoing. But when the test showed answers “indicative of deception,” he began talking.

He told agents he “knew the rules” and promised he would keep his “big mouth closed.” But after failing the polygraph, the FBI officially “closed” Magid as a source, saying “security had been compromised.”

In assessing the damage, Magid’s FBI handler, Agent Rachel Pifer, wrote in a report that Magid’s intelligence, for which he had been paid more than $77,000, had been “corroborated, reliable and credible” and that he could still be successful in a different community.

After the FBI’s official closure of Magid, Pifer told the informant to call Bareng in Fresno. Pifer took the phone and told the agent what Magid had done, she later testified. But Bareng wanted Magid back.

In lying to the authorities, Magid had violated his plea agreement. Prosecutors could have sent him back to prison on the 1999 drug offense. Instead, he was rewarded.

The assistant U.S. attorney handling Central Valley counterterrorism cases was informed that the FBI was cutting Magid off, documents show. Yet three weeks later, another top federal prosecutor dismissed the drug indictment still hanging over his head. Apart from the possibility of deportation, he no longer had consequences to fear.

Back with the DEA, Magid operated with few constraints.

In Nov. 2002, he was turned loose in the Central Valley’s Middle Eastern communities to drum up new cases.

Magid also began using his connections with the government to pad his pockets.

He made Gaber Anwallah an enticing offer, court records show: The DEA would help secure U.S. visas for Anwallah’s relatives in Yemen. But Magid needed $13,000 to secure the deal. Gaber’s family sold off jewelry to pay Magid. But he never delivered, interviews and records show.

Magid also used his sway to launch federal investigations into those who crossed him.

One was Kaled Anwallah, 24, Gaber’s cousin. He liked to party with Magid, discussing life, religion and women. But trouble started in February 2003 when Kaled tried to collect on a $4,000 loan he’d made to Magid. The informant responded by telling his DEA handler that Kaled was involved in selling drugs. Later, he went even further, telling Bareng that Kaled, who lived briefly in Miami, was planning a hate attack on a Florida Jewish community center, documents show.

Bareng referred the matter to the FBI. Shortly after returning to Stockton, Kaled learned that authorities had searched the Miami apartment where he had stayed. He was not charged with any crime.

By August 2005, as Nabil Ismael’s San Francisco trial on drug conspiracy charges approached, Loveseth was feeling more confident. Not only had he and Criswell developed a strong roster of witnesses, they had unexpectedly discovered evidence in a pretrial hearing that the DEA knew of Magid’s problems but continued using him anyway.

First up at the start of trial Aug. 15 was DEA agent Bareng, the prosecution’s star witness, who testified that Ismael had knowingly conspired to sell large quantities of cocaine and methamphetamine.

Ismael tried to remain optimistic. Gaber Anwallah and his cousin Kaled had both agreed to testify and would be able, the defense believed, to show the jury that the DEA’s informant was a liar and a cheat.

Bareng’s testimony proved to be even better for the defense than the witnesses they’d planned to call. When asked about Magid’s FBI termination, Bareng testified that he was never told why the agency had closed Magid as an informant.

U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Breyer was listening closely. In an earlier hearing before the judge, FBI agent Pifer testified that she had explained to Bareng the reasons why the FBI had stopped using Magid in 2002.

Breyer testily pointed out the discrepancy in the two versions. After a break, Bareng got back on the stand and changed his story. Pifer had told him the reason for the firing, he said. Furthermore, Bareng acknowledged, he had discussed the matter with Magid as well as with his DEA supervisor.

Now Breyer was angry.

Breyer: “So the fact that an informant comes in, lies to the FBI, you find out about it, Magid comes and tells you that he lied to the FBI -- that’s just nowhere in the DEA records; is that right? And you had conversations with the DEA and there are no records of that; is that right?”

Bareng: “That’s correct.”

The judge had heard enough. He suggested that Bareng, his supervisor and maybe others had relied knowingly on a “lawless” informant “who has been chastised by the government, who has been fired for it.” More than that, Bareng may have perjured himself, Breyer told prosecutors.

In a rare scene, Bareng soon invoked his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination and asked for a lawyer. Within minutes, Hunter, the assistant U.S. attorney, was passed a note from her superiors: The government moved to dismiss the case against Ismael.

That might have been the end of it all, but the judge wasn’t done. Because witness misconduct and potential perjury had occurred in a case before his court, Breyer said he was compelled to call for an investigation.

The probe, which is being conducted by the inspector general’s office and federal prosecutors from San Diego, is centered on Magid’s possible obstruction of justice.

Investigators are also exploring whether Bareng lied in court about the DEA’s knowledge of Magid’s reckless behavior, whether the agent encouraged some of that conduct and how much his higher-ups knew.

*

The futures of Bareng and Magid remain in doubt pending the government’s investigation. The informant has been questioned by federal officials, who would not say where he is.

Bareng, who now works in Los Angeles, declined to comment. But his attorney said the agent did nothing wrong. All informants “come with some degree of baggage,” said Steven Gruel, a former federal prosecutor. “You don’t have the ability to go to Boy Scout jamborees and ask for volunteers to infiltrate criminal organizations ... I don’t think it was Bareng’s fault.”

A DEA spokesman, meanwhile, said the agency is working to address the inspector general office’s concerns and plans to roll out in November a new system to better manage and track confidential sources. The FBI declined to comment.

Since the case against him was dropped, Ismael has started a new life. His tobacco shop has been transformed into a fashion and wireless phone store.

He says he never lost faith that the truth would emerge.

“I knew there were corrupt agencies, like you see in the movies,” Ismael said. “But I figured the court couldn’t be corrupt, too.

“If the court were corrupt, people wouldn’t want to live in America.”


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