The informant

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<p>Weapons</p>

About three years ago, a man who appears to have been illegally trafficking assault rifles from the United States into Mexico was questioned by Las Vegas agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in the local ATF office, then allowed to walk free. The suspected smuggler talked his way out of a jam — perhaps in part because he was an undercover informant for the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

His name is Gabriel and he’s a man with cross-border crime connections. What happened to him after he turned the tables on his law enforcement handlers is unclear.

I learned about Gabriel and his duplicity when I worked as a defense investigator for a man indicted as a straw-buyer in a gun smuggling scheme Gabriel was allegedly running. My client was a low-level player who pleaded guilty and is now serving time in a federal prison. But what became of Gabriel? Did his status as an informant help him elude law enforcement?

Gabriel’s career as an informant goes back at least to 2008, though his criminal career goes back a few more years. Court records show he was arrested by Metro in 2004 for obstructing an officer and passing bad checks.

Gabriel, by his own admission, was an illegal alien who’d twice been ordered deported. But sometime between 2004 and 2008, Gabriel began working for Uncle Sam. There’s evidence he helped American officials nail a corrupt guard who was dealing drugs in a detention center. His work as an informant ultimately earned Gabriel a rare and very valuable form of a visa: A Significant Public Benefit Parole (SPBP).

This document allowed Gabriel to come and go pretty much as he pleased across the U.S./Mexico border, even though he was still, technically, an alien with no immigration status in the U.S. Gabriel was granted the SPBP so he could help American agents make cases against Mexican drug, immigrant and gun smugglers. But it now appears Gabriel may have used his position as a federal informant to help funnel assault rifles to other criminals south of the border including, in all likelihood, members of Mexican drug cartels. His story is a case study in what can go wrong when informants go “rogue.”

This gun smuggling case began to unwind about the same time the ATF was winding up its “Operation Fast and Furious,” an initiative designed to track the illegal flow of guns to Mexico, wherein “straw buyers” in the U.S. bought guns legally, then turned them over to Mexican outlaws. Some of the guns which were tracked in this operation made their way to Mexican drug gangs and at least one was used in the murder of a U.S. Border Patrol agent.

Las Vegas ATF agents were very concerned about straw buyers, people with no felony convictions who were be able to legally buy guns on behalf of convicted criminals or gang members who could not pass a background check. ATF agents worked closely with local gun stores to try to identify potential straw buyers based on the type and number of guns they were buying.

In this case, ATF agents began to suspect, as a straw buyer, my former client, a man I’ll call “Phillipe” to conceal his identity. I am only keeping his name secret to shield his family from publicity. I’m also not revealing Gabriel’s full name. However, all the details you will read in this story are real, and come straight from court records filed publicly in Phillipe’s case.

The ATF was alerted to Phillipe by a Las Vegas gun store employee who thought it suspicious Phillipe was buying multiple assault weapons, was paying for them in cash and was talking to someone on his cell phone while waiting for his purchases to clear the standard background check.

ATF agents did some research and determined that Phillipe fit the profile of a straw buyer. He was an American citizen (naturalized), was out of work, had recently purchased a dozen assault-type rifles with cash, had no record of purchasing any guns before and appeared to have driver’s licenses in two states (though that later proved to be untrue).

The ATF asked the Nevada Department of Public Safety, which conducts criminal background checks on gun purchasers, to notify them if Phillipe tried to buy any more guns. Sure enough, Phillipe went to a gun store on Blue Diamond Road in Las Vegas and tried to buy several more assault rifles. Accompanying Phillipe was Gabriel and another man who was just a mutual friend and had no connection to the straw buyer scheme. When the gun store called the Nevada DPS for a background check, the DPS alerted the ATF, and agents started heading to the store. Agent “F” (his initial), who was in charge of the investigation, called the gun store and asked the manager to delay the purchase long enough for officers to arrive, then let it go through. That’s exactly what happened.

As Phillipe, Gabriel and the other man were loading the rifles into Phillipe’s SUV, ATF agents and Metro detectives who were part of a task force closed in, blocked the men from leaving and began to question them about the gun buy. Agents also seized the guns.

At first, Gabriel gave the ATF agents a false name. When agents ran the name through a database they learned it was phony. At that point, Gabriel asked if he could talk to the agents out of earshot from Phillipe. The agents complied. Gabriel gave his real name and told the agents he was an informant for DHS. The agents then asked Gabriel, Phillipe and the other man to accompany them to Las Vegas ATF headquarters.

Officers put Gabriel and Phillipe into separate interrogation rooms and started questioning both men. The interrogations were recorded on video.

Gabriel told the officers he was related to Phillipe by marriage and that he only accompanied Phillipe to the gun store that day on a lark. He had no information or indication that Phillip was buying guns on behalf of anyone else.

However, Gabriel did say that he knew someone in San Diego who might be involved in gun smuggling. Gabriel indicated that his DHS handler had recently put him in touch with an ATF agent in San Diego and they were all in the process of starting the gun smuggling investigation. But that investigation had nothing to do with Phillipe, and Gabriel had not been formally signed up to work the San Diego case yet.

The ATF agents checked out Gabriel’s story. Reached through his office in Arizona, Gabriel’s Homeland Security handler confirmed the Mexican citizen was, in fact, a DHS informant, and that he’d recently been introduced to a California ATF agent to begin a gun smuggling investigation. But the DHS officer also warned the ATF agents that Gabriel was not currently working on a case for them in Las Vegas or anywhere else.

Even as Gabriel was denying involvement in the gun smuggling scheme, in a separate interrogation room, Phillipe was telling other agents a different story. Though initially reluctant to talk, Phillipe eventually told officers what they wanted to know. He said he’d been approached by Gabriel, who knew Phillipe had recently been laid off from his job as a security guard at a local casino. Gabriel offered Phillipe $5,000, cash, to purchase assault rifles from various stores in Las Vegas. Phillipe was an American citizen with no criminal history, so he’d have no problem making the buys.

In addition to the five grand cash up front, he said, Gabriel also provided cash for the actual purchases and even gave Phillipe a list of the guns he wanted. Phillipe bought 12 rifles at three stores before the final purchase where he was caught by the ATF. Phillipe had taken those dozen guns by car to San Diego and transferred them to Gabriel in a public parking lot. What happened to these weapons is anyone’s guess.

During the course of his interrogation, Gabriel admitted doing several things that could have resulted in his arrest: He confessed to having handled some of the assault rifles Phillipe bought that day and mentioned that he’d fired an AR-15 earlier that year at a gun range in San Diego — both incidents possibly amounting to possession of a firearm by an illegal alien, a felony.

Should agents have arrested Gabriel at this point? That question might make an interesting subject for debate. In any event, ATF agents let Gabriel go that day and didn’t arrest anyone, Phillipe included.

But it wasn’t long before agents were calling on Phillipe to help them find Gabriel, the federal informant who’d now changed his phone number and was bouncing back and forth across the border.

About two weeks after the incident at the gun store on Blue Diamond Road, agents asked Phillipe if he could contact Gabriel and try to get him to admit involvement in the gun smuggling conspiracy. Phillipe declined, noting that this was the sort of thing that could put Phillipe and his family in jeopardy. He refused to testify before a grand jury for the same reason.

Federal authorities then indicted Phillipe for making false statements on the paperwork he filled out when buying the rifles for Gabriel. Phillipe eventually pleaded guilty and is now serving time in a federal prison. At the time of Phillipe’s indictment and arrest, at least seven months after he and Gabriel were questioned at the Las Vegas ATF office, agents still didn’t know where Gabriel was.

Also unknown is whether Gabriel was ever indicted for his role in the case. Perhaps he was and the indictment is sealed, but an on-line search of federal criminal cases showed nothing under Gabriel’s name.

The issue of why agents didn’t arrest Gabriel the day they had him in their office came up, obliquely, at a pre-trial court hearing in Phillipe’s case. Phillipe’s lawyer, in seeking to have some of the evidence in the case suppressed, questioned Metro detective “C“ (again, an initial), who was on the ATF task force that responded to Blue Diamond Road. Detective C had interrogated Gabriel that day at the ATF office. Here’s a portion of the hearing transcript where C is asked about the decision not to arrest Gabriel:

Lawyer: Okay, at the time he told you, that [Gabriel] told you that he had touched the guns at the gun range you were concerned about that, right?

Detective C: Yes.

Lawyer: [Gabriel] however is not arrested that day, right?

Detective C: He is not arrested

Lawyer: Was that your decision or Agent [F]’s decision?

Detective C: At that time [Gabriel] really hadn’t committed anything that I knew of that would be probable cause to that point —

Lawyer: Okay …

Detective C: — of arrest.

Lawyer: And whose decision was that not to arrest [Gabriel] …

Detective C: Ultimately, it was Agent [F]’s decision.

Agent F also testified at the hearing, but the decision not to arrest Gabriel did not come up during his testimony. The answers from Detective C suggest officers didn’t believe they had probable cause to make an arrest, despite Gabriel’s own admissions, Phillipe’s implications and the generally suspicious circumstances surrounding the gun buy on Blue Diamond Road.

Still, from the criminal defense side of this case, there are those who wonder how Gabriel managed to avoid arrest. Did agents give Gabriel the benefit of the doubt because he was a federal informant?

Contacted by CityLife, a spokeswoman for the ATF said that’s not her agency’s policy. The fact that a person is a confidential informant for another federal or law enforcement agency does not give him or her a get-out-of jail free card, said ATF Agent Helen Dunkel.

“If somebody has broken the law, the fact that they are a confidential informant does not give them a free ride,” Dunkel said. “If they break the law, the ATF pursues charges.” She said that the ATF does not comment or provide information on specific informants. Dunkel said the U.S. Attorney’s office could, on a case-by-case basis, consider significant information provided by a confidential informant when making sentencing decisions, particularly in cases involving the threat of violent crime. That situation, however, would not apply to Gabriel, since he was not charged or sentenced.

And so, these questions remain: Where is Gabriel today? Is there a warrant for his arrest? What happened to the guns Phillipe allegedly transferred to Gabriel in San Diego? Have any of these rifles surfaced in Mexico at crime scenes or during raids on Mexican drug gangs?

Perhaps, one day, those questions will be answered. But for now, three years after he walked out of the ATF office in Las Vegas, the fate of the man — and the guns he’s suspected of smuggling into Mexico — remains a mystery.