By Geoff Mulvihill
Thursday, November 6, 2008
CAMDEN, N.J., Nov. 5 -- Attorneys for five men accused of plotting to kill soldiers in New Jersey began cross-examining a key government informant Wednesday as they tried to pin blame for the alleged conspiracy on him.
The four previous days Mahmoud Omar spent on the witness stand mostly involved prosecutors asking him to clarify secret recordings he made that are key to the government's case. Defense lawyers contend it was Omar who tried to create a conspiracy and draw the other men into it.
Rocco Cipparone, the attorney for defendant Mohamad Shnewer, quizzed Omar about his past crimes, what he was getting for cooperating with the FBI, his investigative methods and his truthfulness.
Omar, 39, became an informant in 2005 after being caught in a bank-fraud scam. Beginning in March 2006, he infiltrated the group of men eventually charged with plotting the attack on Fort Dix, an Army installation used primarily to train soldiers for deployments in Iraq. No attack took place.
In one lengthy exchange, Cipparone repeatedly asked Omar whether he wanted to remain in the country. Omar's answers, given in Arabic through an interpreter, rambled.
He said he wanted to return to Egypt, explaining, "I want to stay where it is safe for me and my kids."
He gave a similar reason for wanting to remain in the United States. "In all honesty," he said, "I will be staying here with my kids."
In response to the same questions, he said he is in danger because he is helping the U.S. government. "I know that someone is going to put a gun to me," he said. "This will happen to me. I did the right thing, and God bless America."
Omar, an Egyptian who entered the U.S. illegally in the 1990s, is getting $1,500 a week plus free rent for his aid to the government.
Prosecutors have said that if Omar is helpful in the trial, they will ask customs officials to allow him to remain in the United States as a permanent resident or even a citizen.
The defendants, all foreign-born Muslims in their 20s who lived for years in Cherry Hill, N.J., are charged with conspiracy to kill military personnel, attempted murder and weapons offenses. They face life in prison if convicted.
Cipparone played a recording made in the investigation in which Omar described how to create a fake title for a stolen car and export the car overseas. In the recording, he said he used to do that, but not anymore.
Omar said the terrorist attacks on America in 2001 made it harder for Muslims to get away with crimes. "Before September 11, he can do a lot of fraud. Nobody looking at you."
He never directly answered several questions about whether he exported stolen cars, instead responding, "Never in my life did I steal a car."
Under questioning, Omar said that just last month the FBI negotiated terms for him to pay back more than $4,000 to Commerce Bank, which he defrauded nearly four years ago.
He said he would not have considered returning the money if the government did not tell him he would be prosecuted if he didn't pay it back.
At times, the thin, balding Omar was combative. More than once, he answered Cipparone's question in English before waiting for the queries to be translated.
Cross-examination continues Thursday and is expected to continue for much of next week.