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

Hunter and fellow prosecutor Audra Ibarra chose to soldier on, and the next day, Bareng attempted to clarify his answer about Magid's FBI departure. As it turned out, he said, he had previously "misspoken" -- a bureau agent did indeed explain the circumstances to him. At that point, Breyer, realizing Bareng may have committed perjury, asked again if prosecutors cared to drop the case. They refused and, in a last-ditch grab at a conviction, offered a final plea deal of "misprisonment": In essence, Ismael would admit to knowing crimes occurred but would serve no time.

Loveseth relayed his client's terse response. "He's not interested."

By leaving Bareng on the stand after he appeared to contradict himself, prosecutors virtually forced him to exercise his right against self-incrimination, after which he stepped down and Breyer flushed his testimony. A short time later, Breyer granted Hunter's request to spike the case, clinching Ismael's exoneration. "I thank God," Ismael says, then catches himself. "God and Ian."

"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.

Loveseth, in discussing one of the biggest victories of his 28-year law career, raps the DEA for overselling a suspect investigation to the U.S. Attorney's Office, which he in turn faults for its mulish reluctance to dump an unsound case. But he saves his most acerbic criticism for the agent and the snitch who ruined Ismael's life for the better part of a year. Referring to the possibility that Bareng committed perjury and directed Magid to lie under oath, he asks, "Was Bareng's biggest problem what he did or that he wasn't smart enough to cover it up?"

Meanwhile, Loveseth says, any misery that visits Magid represents karmic comeuppance. "Just look at what he put Nabil through. Magid figured he had an easy mark and went after someone he thought he could fool. Now he's paying the price."

The end of Ismael's crucible marked the start of a sweeping Justice Department inquiry into Magid's and Bareng's conduct in cases they have worked. Following the trial, Breyer ordered a federal probe to examine whether Magid lured Ismael into committing crimes, coerced a defense witness, or lied in small claims court at Bareng's behest. The judge also asked investigators to determine if Bareng committed perjury or withheld word of Magid's FBI termination when urging prosecutors to drop drug charges against the snitch in 2002. In addition, Breyer demanded to know whether Bareng, other agents, and DEA supervisors suppressed unflattering details about Magid's past conduct from prosecutors and defense lawyers involved in the informant's cases.

In short, as Breyer asked federal officials, "What did the DEA know and when?"

The investigation could alter the fate of two dozen people Magid helped put away, including seven in Fresno, and potentially countless others if the probe broadens to examine other informants Bareng has handled. Prosecutors already have dropped the case against Al-Mamari and reduced charges against Fadi Yaghnam, two of Ismael's former co-defendants, and delayed the sentencing of the other two, Kwasi Sampson and George Yaghnam. (The Yaghnams and Sampson declined to comment.)

Citing the ongoing investigation, officials from the U.S. Attorney's Office, the DEA, and the FBI refused to discuss Ismael's trial, as did Breyer. A DEA spokesman, downplaying the case, asserted that the agency's informants are "rarely criticized," a response that suggests the federal probe will create little change in the handling of informants. "Prosecutors are so dependent on snitches, it's hard to imagine anything will be different," says defense lawyer Alan Dressler, who represents Fadi Yaghnam. "Without snitches, there wouldn't be any drug prosecutions."

Even so, the fallout of Ismael's case may curtail the undercover work of Bareng and Magid, given the ostensible damage to each man's credibility. Bareng's lawyer, Steve Gruel, concedes his client could wind up with a DEA desk job if his bosses believe the Ismael trial will shadow him every time he takes the stand. Magid, by contrast, might land back in Yemen. He has faced an annual review on his immigration status since his Fresno arrest in 1999, and DEA officials have worked on his behalf to assure Immigration Services that he deserves to remain in the U.S. If he loses his snitch status, the feds may decide to deport him.

But that seems unlikely. Despite Magid's supposed termination by the FBI three years ago, he has worked with at least three agencies on a regular basis. And, as of June of this year, he continued to feed information to a fourth -- none other than the FBI.

Earlier this month, the day after Breyer dismissed his case, Hassan Al-Mamari dropped by Ismael's store in Ingleside. It was the first time the two friends had seen each other in nearly a year; they had avoided contact while their cases were pending, fearing they might be under surveillance. Tears in his eyes, Al-Mamari kissed Ismael on the head and neck, apologizing for ever introducing him to Magid.

"How could a guy from our country -- same culture, same people -- do this to us?" Al-Mamari asked.

Ismael patted his friend's shoulder, as if reassuring him that Magid has it far worse. "Essam will not be happy for the rest of his life."

« Previous Page
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.