SAN FRANCISCO — 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.
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."
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.
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.
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.