Monday, October 18, 2010

FW: U.S. Case Against Informer Bares a Tangled Bond


The New York Times

October 17, 2010

U.S. Case Against Informer Bares a Tangled Bond


Abdelghani Meskini was the rarest of government informers, a reformed Algerian terrorist who was convicted in the failed “millennium plot” to blow up Los Angeles International Airport, but then became a valuable witness whose testimony helped convict two other plotters.

In return, Mr. Meskini was given a lenient sentence and a second chance: He relocated to Georgia, changed his name, paid thousands of dollars in restitution and found a job managing low-end apartments.

The complexes were often occupied by the likes of drug dealers and prostitutes, but one tenant in particular — a woman known as Crystal — became his friend.

He lent her money, got her a laptop, taught her how to use the Internet to do background checks on clients, and helped her prepare ads for an escort Web site. He never talked about his past, except that he had been in prison — for doing the numbers, he explained.

They forged an unusual relationship, the terrorist and the prostitute, each keeping secrets from the other. He did not tell her about his role in the bomb plot. She also did not know of his past as an informer; he did not know that she would become one.

Last week, Mr. Meskini, 42, faced Crystal Amy Roughton, 33, in a Manhattan court, as federal prosecutors tried to persuade a judge that Mr. Meskini had violated the terms of his release and should go back to prison. He kept his face down as Ms. Roughton, dressed conservatively with blond hair falling over her shoulders, recounted how she learned that her friend and mentor had once been a terrorist. “I didn’t believe it,” she said. “No way in hell.”

The judge, John F. Keenan of Federal District Court, heard two days of testimony from Ms. Roughton and other government witnesses; among the things she recounted was his attempt to buy an AK-47 assault rifle.

Mr. Meskini’s lawyer, who entered a not-guilty plea for his client, is expected to present his case this week. Prosecutors have not said whether they believe Mr. Meskini, whose first name they have previously rendered as Abdel Ghani, was returning to terrorism.

Mr. Meskini had been a young Algerian Army officer who decided to leave his country in 1994, stowing away on a boat to Boston. He supported himself through fraud, using falsified passports and Social Security cards to open bank accounts and then obtaining checks and credit cards.

He eventually fell in with other conspirators in the airport bomb plot, which was foiled in December 1999 when the authorities arrested another Algerian, Ahmed Ressam, as he tried to enter the United States from Canada in a car carrying bomb components. Mr. Meskini’s phone number was found in his pocket.

Facing more than 100 years in prison, Mr. Meskini pleaded guilty to conspiring to support terrorism and bank fraud, and cooperated with the government.

In 2004, Mr. Meskini was sentenced to 72 months in prison and ordered to pay about $60,000 in restitution. With credit for time served and good behavior, he was released in 2005.

Mr. Meskini applied for the witness protection program, but was denied entry, a former lawyer has said. The reasons are not public. Still, with help from the government — the Federal Bureau of Investigation paid him more than $150,000 in 2005 and 2006, probation records show — he moved to Georgia, legally changed his name, and took a job managing apartments in the Buckhead section of Atlanta, including a 14-unit complex where drugs were sold openly and prostitutes took their customers, testimony showed.

He collected rent, did maintenance, moved tenants in and out, and was supposed to stay out of trouble, said Detective Jay Sausmer of the Fulton County Police Department, who testified that he met annually with Mr. Meskini and had approved the job.

Detective Sausmer said he told Mr. Meskini in 2005 that as he worked “his way back into society,” if he encountered “any kind of criminal activity, that he should speak up” and let him know or call 911. He said Mr. Meskini never did.

It was around 2006 when Crystal Roughton moved in. A softball player in high school, she said she spent several years at college in Virginia and Delaware without graduating and later worked in a homeless shelter.

Granted immunity for her testimony, she seemed to hide nothing. She has a young son, who lives with her mother, and has given up more than one child to adoption. She has used cocaine, crystal meth, Ecstasy and marijuana, she said, and has smoked crack nearly every day for the last five years, although she recently stopped to prepare for her court appearance. She has been arrested frequently for drug possession. And she regularly sold drugs to her clients.

Mr. Meskini, who despite changing his name was still known as Ghani, became a fast friend, she said. He lent her money for food and cigarettes and, on rare occasions, for drugs. “He hated drugs,” she said.

She suggested that their relationship had little to do with sex. “Ghani was trying to always help me do better,” she testified.

“His goal was to help me be able to — by myself — to stand alone so I didn’t need a pimp,” she added.

In helping her promote her services on the Web, he even reviewed her advertisements. “I am a terrible speller,” she explained. He also gave her a telephone and helped pay her bills.

In teaching her how to check clients’ backgrounds, she said, he demonstrated how to use the Web to verify phone numbers and identifications.

He also advised her never to sign anything, because that would leave “a paper trail with my name” that could lead to “jail time,” she said.

When she was frightened of a customer, or had a violent encounter, Mr. Meskini would move her from one apartment to another. When her door was kicked in three different times, she said, he repaired it. He met her parents, and knew her son’s name. “I trusted no one in the state of Georgia more than I trusted Ghani,” she said.

She said she saw Mr. Meskini with a handgun in 2007, which shocked her. Then, last year, she said, she began seeing changes in him. He was putting on weight and drinking more, and told her that he felt as if he were dying. He said that he wanted to travel home to see his parents, but that he had no citizenship papers and could not leave the country.

Then last fall he confided in her, she recalled. “He told me he needed my help with something,” she said. He wanted an AK-47, and knew that some of Ms. Roughton’s clients had guns. He said he would spend up to $5,500, telling her that he might need the weapon to get back home.

She did not hesitate. “I told him, absolutely,” she said later. “Anything. All he had to do is ask.”

She called a client who she said had a warehouse full of guns, and also checked with drug dealers she knew. Last September, she said, she got an e-mail from Mr. Meskini with photographs of the kind of weapon he wanted.

Around the same time last fall, Mr. Meskini was also expressing frustration in meetings with Detective Sausmer and F.B.I. agents about his inability to travel overseas or even around the United States. “He just wanted to get away from Georgia,” Detective Sausmer recalled.

Mr. Meskini promised that he was not thinking about hurting anyone, but acknowledged that someone had offered to sell him an AK-47, the detective testified.

In one meeting, he said he was afraid that he was being followed.

The F.B.I. and the detective met with him again in November, a few days after 13 people were killed in a shooting at Fort Hood, Tex. He seemed agitated and depressed, they recalled. He said he had found a tracking device on his car and asked that it be removed. It was taken off, one agent, James Pinette, testified.

They also asked him whether he owned grenades. He replied no, but if he had, “he would have used them,” Agent Pinette said.

At one point, Mr. Meskini said he wanted to leave the country, whether he had legal documentation or not, the agent said. “He added that he risked his life to get into the United States, and if he had to, he would risk his life to get out.”

Mr. Meskini allowed the F.B.I. agents to copy the hard drive of his computer, and was pacing and rocking as it was done, Agent Pinette recalled.

Prosecutors have said in court filings that Mr. Meskini used the Internet to search for gun shops in the Atlanta area, and that he researched weapons like the AK-47 and rocket-propelled grenades. He also visited jihadist Web sites, including that of Anwar al-Awlaki, the extremist Muslim cleric in Yemen, a court filing shows.

Shortly after this visit, the F.B.I. called immigration authorities, who detained Mr. Meskini. At some point beforehand, however, he sent a text message to Ms. Roughton, apparently assuming she had already spoken to the authorities.

“After all I have done for you,” she recalled him writing, “this is how you repay the favor.”

In court last week, Ms. Roughton testified that the F.B.I. did not interview her until this past March, some months after Mr. Meskini was jailed.

“I just told the truth,” she said of the interviews. But the agents’ questions about him raised “a flag,” she added. She recalled that a man who had owed Mr. Meskini money once had claimed that he was a terrorist. She said she had spit in his face. “I didn’t believe him,” she said, “because Ghani never lied to me.”

But after the F.B.I. interview, she said, she put her friend’s name into Google, much as Mr. Meskini had once taught her how to do to investigate her clients. She read about his background. “Ghani never told me about that,” she testified.

She said she felt she had no choice but to cooperate with the F.B.I. “Because if I had gotten Ghani that AK and Ghani had used it and hurt innocent lives, I would not want that on my conscience,” she said.

If the judge rules against Mr. Meskini, he could send him to prison for several years. Mr. Meskini’s lawyer, Mark S. DeMarco, said by phone that his client was required in his job to associate with his tenants, no matter what their profession.

“He was not there to judge anyone,” Mr. DeMarco said. “He gave rent extensions to tenants who were short on their payments and lent money to tenants who needed food or who begged him because they needed to feed their addictions.”

As for Ms. Roughton, she told Judge Keenan that she planned to enter inpatient drug treatment, and hoped to get back on her feet. Friends have said she can live with them until, as she put it, “I can make a better way for myself.”

And she made clear that she held no enmity toward Mr. Meskini. “You have got to understand,” she said, “Ghani is a person that had been in my heart for a long time.”

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company



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