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

Garland doesn't believe prosecutors scrubbed the stains from Magid's snitch record, including the FBI's decision to deactivate him. "They gave me what the DEA gave them," he says. Considering the typically congested flow of information among law enforcement agencies, says San Francisco defense lawyer Paul Wolf, "defendants proceed to trial at their own risk if they think they'll be able to dig up dirt on an informant." Wolf, who represents Kwasi Sampson, adds that even if evidence of a snitch's misconduct emerges, "a lot of judges rule that background on informants isn't relevant."

Loveseth urged Ismael to accept a plea deal that would let him walk after four years. But while Loveseth grasped the long odds of winning the case, he admits to initially mistaking Ismael's refusal to plead guilty as naive obstinance. One high-decibel argument between lawyer and client occurred around the time Ismael's wife gave birth to the couple's first child in May, three months before the start of Ismael's trial. After Ismael again spurned a plea offer, the 6-foot-5 Loveseth, whose height and bearded mug lend him a bearlike presence, rose from his chair and bellowed, "It's not about innocence, c'mon!"

Recounting the moment, Ismael ducks, as if slipping a punch. "Ian, he was so mad. I knew he really cared. I keep telling him, 'The truth will come out.'" Ismael spent long hours analyzing case documents, scouring the Arabic-to-English translations of the DEA's taped conversations to search for discrepancies. In risking 20 years in prison, he derived strength from faith and fury. "If I said I did those things, it would be lying to God. What Sam did, it was wrong." His willpower earned him an earthy nickname from Loveseth -- Nabil "More Balls Than Brains" Ismael -- along with the veteran defense lawyer's enduring respect. "He has," Loveseth says, "the courage of his convictions."

"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.

Ismael carried a small copy of the Koran in his suit pocket as he walked into the cavernous courtroom of U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in August. In a strange way, the start of his trial dulled his anxiety, his unease dissolving as, at long last, he confronted the accusations against him. His calmness soon morphed into confidence, thanks to Breyer.

Early on, Assistant U.S. Attorney Alexis Hunter requested that Breyer preclude a defense investigator from mentioning Magid's snitch work while interviewing potential witnesses. Breyer's response mixed disbelief with sarcasm, as he chided prosecutors for living "in some rarified, unreal" realm where they seek to both convict a person and restrict his ability to mount a defense. When Hunter protested that the investigator's inquiries could provoke retribution against Magid, Breyer cut her off midsentence, reminding her that prosecutors had pursued the case knowing that Magid's identity would be exposed in court.

"If you're so concerned about [his] safety," the judge said, "maybe you ought to dismiss the charge ...."

In fact, others may have needed protection from Magid, who apparently sought to intimidate a defense witness before Ismael's trial. Private investigator Don Criswell, a retired homicide detective hired by Loveseth, interviewed a man who met Magid during his stint as an FBI snitch in Sacramento. In an echo of Ismael's account, the man asserted that Magid, without first alerting FBI agents, recruited him to work as an informant.

To dissuade the man from testifying about Magid's freestyle approach to snitching, Magid allegedly threatened to claim he had sex with the man's daughter before she married. Such a slur could more than humiliate the woman, a Muslim who lives in Yemen -- Islam views premarital sex as a sin punishable by excommunication, public floggings, or, in extreme circumstances, death.

On the stand, Bareng, the DEA agent, revealed that Magid admitted to harassing the man, one of several startling disclosures to surface at trial as a result of Criswell's spadework. The investigator also unearthed evidence that DEA agents may have instructed Magid to lie under oath in another court to preserve his covert identity and the ongoing probe of Ismael and his co-defendants.

Hassan Al-Mamari, Ismael's friend, sued Magid in San Francisco small claims court in 2004, accusing Magid of stealing $5,000 that was intended to cover Al-Mamari's bail after his arrest on assault charges. Worried about their informant tipping off Al-Mamari to the drug investigation of which he was a target, DEA agents prepped Magid before he testified. According to Bareng, he and other agents told Magid, "You can't divulge that you're an informant with [the] DEA." Two agents were dispatched to small claims court to chaperone Magid, who in response to the judge's inquiry about his livelihood dutifully gave a dishonest answer: "I sell cars."

Loveseth pounced on Bareng's admission, asking if, in effect, the DEA ordered Magid to lie under oath. Bareng, as though mulling the possibility for the first time, replied, "I suppose he probably would have been put in that position."

The revelation that the DEA potentially compelled Magid to commit perjury, coupled with the snitch's alleged attempt to bully a witness, troubled Breyer, a former criminal defense lawyer. But it was when Bareng pleaded ignorance about why the FBI terminated Magid in 2002 that the judge imparted a bit of pro bono advice to prosecutors. Pointing out that Bareng's statement directly contradicted the pretrial testimony of an FBI agent who stated that she briefed Bareng, Breyer said, "I think you better look at this case very carefully and see whether you want to proceed with it."

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