Bait and Snitch

Lying under oath, threatening witnesses, revealing the names of federal agents -- it's just another day on the job for one of the DEA's paid drug informants

If Ismael hoped his acquaintance would pick up on his polite refusal, Magid apparently missed the hint. The next afternoon, Ismael asserts, Magid called to ask, "Have you talked to anyone?" The pattern repeated for a few days, and each time, Ismael says, Magid would crow, "I make very good money working for the government."

Casting his eyes downward, Ismael admits the prospect of a new career gradually seduced him. He arrived in the Bay Area in 1991, at age 14, brought to the U.S. by his father, who spent 35 years as a cargo loader on San Francisco's docks. In June 2003, Ismael lived with his brother in a small San Bruno apartment, and he still appreciated his prosperity relative to Yemen's chronic poverty. Yet as he listened to Magid talk about 9-to-5 workdays and free weekends, Ismael dreamed of a life beyond selling used SUVs.

So the next time he and Magid talked, Ismael heard himself ask, "What do I have to do?" He says Magid directed him to quietly approach friends, acquaintances, customers -- anyone -- to see whether they knew suppliers who could move upward of 30 kilos of cocaine or meth. If somebody said yes, Ismael should arrange a meeting to introduce Magid as his Uncle Sam, in town from Hawaii and eager to buy. Still skittish that neighborhood peddlers would exact revenge on him if arrested, Ismael says Magid gave him his word: "Nothing will happen. We want the big dealers." Ismael chose to trust him.

"If I would have to serve 15, 20 years, I 
would, as long as God knows I'm innocent," 
Nabil Ismael says. "I can't lie."
Paolo Vescia
"If I would have to serve 15, 20 years, I would, as long as God knows I'm innocent," Nabil Ismael says. "I can't lie."
On Nov. 1, 2004, DEA agents flooded into 
the corner store Ismael (right) owns.
Paolo Vescia
On Nov. 1, 2004, DEA agents flooded into the corner store Ismael (right) owns.

Within a couple of days, Ismael talked to an old high-school friend who stopped by the dealership, and the man agreed to meet with Magid. Court records state that, with Magid and Ismael in his car, the man pulled out two pieces of plastic wrap that held small samples of cocaine and meth. Ismael recalls sitting in the back seat, bug-eyed and motionless. Before meeting Magid, he insists, his experience with drugs consisted of buying weed on a few occasions. "Now I'm watching this thinking, 'Shit! What am I doing?'"

The man also negotiated to sell Magid a kilo of cocaine for $17,500, a deal that fell through because, Ismael claims, the man "got so sick of Sam calling him all the time." In the meantime, Ismael says, Magid pressed him for further introductions. He obliged by putting Magid in touch with Kwasi Sampson, a longtime customer of the dealership. Sometime later, without Ismael present, Sampson allegedly sold a pound of crystal meth to Magid and an undercover DEA agent for $11,500.

Ismael also talked to a friend who referred him to a man willing to sell a kilo of cocaine. Magid set up a rendezvous in a bank parking lot next to the dealership and brought along an associate named Ricky. Wearing a Hawaiian shirt, his dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, Ricky told Ismael that he operated out of Hawaii and wanted to buy large quantities of cocaine and meth. Ismael nodded, saying little. Magid had shared few details about Ricky, and Ismael found the man's presence unsettling. "He would stare at you sometimes like he was saying, 'I'm going to get you, motherfucker.'" Only after his arrest would Ismael learn that Ricky is DEA agent Dwayne Bareng, who supervised Magid at the time.

The coke dealer failed to show, and as the summer wore on, the stress of trying to locate sources for Magid devoured Ismael. He withdrew from family and friends, lost his appetite. "It was a different Nabil," says his younger brother, Mohammed, who works at the dealership. "He was becoming like a stranger." In mid-August, Ismael introduced Magid to Fadi Yaghnam, an acquaintance of a co-worker's cousin, and soon after, determined to escape Magid's hectoring, he quit his job and changed his cell phone number. His contact with Magid tapered off.

In late 2003, dipping into savings and borrowing money from family, Ismael opened a small neighborhood store in the Outer Mission. The demands of running a business took his mind off Magid, and by last autumn, Ismael, newly married and his store expanding, felt at peace -- until Magid called on Nov. 1, 2004. His ruse to bring Ismael $4,500 for setting up drug deals would end with DEA agents flooding Ismael's store. On the same day, agents arrested Yaghnam and his father, George, who allegedly sold six kilos of cocaine to undercover agents over a 14-month stretch. They also rounded up Al-Mamari on drug conspiracy charges; Sampson would be busted on a similar rap a short time later.

Court records show Ismael candidly admitted to agents that he made introductions for Magid, statements that portray Ismael as "an experienced drug broker," prosecutors wrote. Yet neither Ismael nor his attorney, Ian Loveseth, dispute what occurred, only the original motive. In pretrial filings, Loveseth advanced a so-called public-authority defense, arguing that, under the guise of running a federal investigation, Magid had lured Ismael into criminal activity. (Public authority differs from entrapment, which denotes explicit coercion to break the law.)

Bolstering that claim were conversations taped by the DEA that reveal how Ismael, though he accepted two payments totaling $1,100 from Bareng, voiced almost no interest in receiving money for helping Magid. In one conversation, as Bareng pushes him to specify a dollar figure, Ismael replies, "I'm not in it for the money." Even Magid remarks on Ismael's lack of greed, at one point saying to Bareng, "And he don't even ask you for money, Nabil."

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