Drug informant learns the hard way: Get it in writing

WASHINGTON -- Federal agents paid Romeo K. Aboo $200,000 for his help in busting a methamphetamine ring whose tentacles reached into the San Joaquin Valley. He wanted more.

But in a case that sheds light on the shadowy world of drug informants, a federal judge has now ruled Aboo got what he deserved. The case also offers important lessons for future would-be informants: Lower your expectations, and get a written contract.

"You try to keep informants as happy as possible, and pay them as much as possible," Bill Ruzzamenti, director of the Fresno-based Central Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, said Thursday, "but it never seems to be enough."

Ruzzamenti, a federal employee who oversees combined anti-drug operations from Sacramento to Kern counties, acknowledged that "we can't operate without informants." The Drug Enforcement Administration alone uses about 4,000 confidential informants annually, according to the Justice Department. Ruzzamenti said the informants complain "all the time" about money, though few go as far as filing a lawsuit.

Aboo sought $750,000 for his work as a snitch in what became known as Operation Mountain Express II. The long-running investigation demolished a ring that shipped methamphetamine ingredients from Canada into California, and eventually into the San Joaquin Valley.

But in a decision quietly issued March 31, U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge Charles Lettow dismissed Aboo's bid for more money.

"There is no evidence to demonstrate that the supervisors of the special agents from the FBI and IRS that handled Mr. Aboo's case knew that there was a ... contract, let alone acquiesced in such a contract," Lettow noted.

A one-time Florida resident, the 64-year-old Aboo represented himself in the lawsuit. His listed telephone number does not work, and he could not be reached to comment.

When Operation Mountain Express II culminated with arrests in January 2002, Aboo's name was kept carefully under wraps. Fifteen men, including twin brothers from Jordan named Khaldon Esawi and Khaled Obeid, eventually pleaded guilty to money laundering and drug trafficking charges.

Aboo had been working as Esawi's business manager in Illinois. He knew the intimate details of how boxes of pseudoephedrine tablets were being bought in Canada for between $130 and $200. The boxes were then shipped in tractor-trailers to Southern California, where they were sold for between $500 and $1,000. Mexican organized gang members would then use the tablets to cook illegal meth in labs scattered throughout the state.

"On Oct. 19, 2001, surveillance officers observed a Monte Carlo drive up to the (Southern California) warehouse where the pseudoephedrine was stored," DEA Special Agent Joseph B. Schihl recounted in one court filing. "After the car was loaded, the surveillance officers followed it to a private residence in the Fresno County area."

Officers subsequently searched the Fresno-area site, found an active meth lab and made three arrests.

In wiretapped phone calls, Esawi referred to the pseudophedrine tablets as "slaughtered sheep." Esawi laundered his drug money through real estate and used car dealerships. During three phases of Operation Mountain Express, agents eventually seized 110 million tablets of pseudophedrine, a cold medicine.

"It was a big, big deal at the time," Ruzzamenti recalled.

Law enforcement officers served warrants in Fresno and 10 other cities as part of the operation. Fearing for his life, Aboo moved into a government safe house for six months.

Aboo later declined an IRS offer to enter the Witness Protection Program, and then had to leave the safe house because he had stayed the maximum time allowed.

Eventually, the DEA agreed to pay Aboo $200,000 in return for an agreement that he would not sue for more. Aboo nonetheless sued last year, arguing that his dire economic circumstances had compelled him to sign the earlier statement in exchange for money.

"The FBI, the DEA and the IRS were all working on this case, (and) they all were very pleased with the quality of the information," Aboo stated in one legal filing.

Law enforcement officers conceded the value of Aboo's work but insisted they had no obligation to give him anything in return.

"I did not promise Mr. Aboo an award of any amount or type," FBI Special Agent Brent E. Potter stated in one court filing.