Alex Constantine - November 1, 2008
By GEOFF MULVIHILL/Associated Press via www.newsday.com
October 27, 2008
CAMDEN, N.J. - Being an informant for the FBI in the Fort Dix terror investigation has paid well, a witness explained to jurors Monday.
John Stermel, an investigator assigned to an FBI counterterrorism task force, spent Monday on the stand detailing the role of informant Mahmoud Omar, who wore a wire for 16 months and recorded 200 conversations in the investigation of five men accused of planning to shoot soldiers at the Army training base.
The 39-year-old Omar was expected to testify beginning Tuesday. Lawyers expect that he will be on the witness stand for several days.
Defense lawyers say it was Omar who tried to plot an attack, not their clients _ all foreign-born Muslims in their 20s who are all charged with conspiracy to kill military personnel and attempted murder. The men, who lived for years in the Philadelphia suburb of Cherry Hill, were arrested in May 2007.
They have been in federal custody since their arrest.
No attack happened.
For his help, authorities will recommend that immigration officials, who once were considering deporting Omar, offer him legal resident status _ perhaps even citizenship, Stermel testified.
By year's end, Omar will have received nearly $240,000 for his help: $185,000 in direct payments plus reimbursement for $25,000 in expenses _ including $2,000 to repair his car _ and nearly $29,000 in rent.
Weekly payments of $1,500 began in August 2006, the month Omar went with one of the defendants, Mohamad Shnewer, to check out Fort Dix and other military installations in New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania, Stermel said.
The government also has paid the former used car salesman's $1,400-a-month rent since someone working for a defense lawyer in the case tracked him down more than a year ago, Stermel said. He needed to be relocated then for security reasons, the investigator said.
Jurors also heard about Omar's past on Monday, though some details remain sketchy. The Egyptian-born man told investigators that he sneaked into the United States through Mexico in 1995, but told a probation office that it was actually three years earlier.
He pleaded guilty in 2001 to a bank fraud charge and was under investigation in January 2005 in a similar case, Stermel said.
It was then he agreed to become a federal informant in return for not having charges brought. But apparently, he had second thoughts. Stermel said that later the same day, he was picked up at a border crossing between Detroit and Canada.
He agreed to return to the Philadelphia area and help authorities, who say his work has resulted in three criminal convictions and other active investigations.
Stermel said it was serendipity that landed Omar on the Fort Dix case in March 2006.
In January 2006, the FBI had obtained a video of a group of men firing weapons and shouting "Allah akbar," or "God is great," and was trying to decide whether they were a threat, Stermel said.
He said Omar didn't know about the video. But in March 2006, Omar told his handlers that he shopped at a small grocery store in Pennsauken, where he got to know Shnewer, who was one of the people on the video. Omar told authorities that Shnewer was "tight with the religion," or a Muslim extremist.
Anticipating defense attacks on Omar's credibility, a prosecutor asked Stermel about Omar's missteps. Among them: He tested positive for marijuana once while on probation, admitted selling a Social Security number and used to a fake address to try to get a Virginia driver's license.
Shnewer's lawyer, Rocco Cipparone, began his cross-examination of Stermel by asking if he agreed or disagreed with this statement: "If it were not for Mr. Omar's cooperation in this investigation, there would not be a case against Mr. Shnewer."
"I can't say that," replied Stermel, who remained unflappable through hours of grilling by defense lawyers. "We would have investigated it until its logical conclusion with or without an informant."