But now he’s out of prison, having served about 51 months of a 144-month sentence. Here’s how, and it’s an interesting look into how some prisoners are able to shave significant time off their sentences.
A funny thing happened on El-Atari’s way to prison. He began to meet the most interesting people in the Arlington and Alexandria jails, where the feds hold people until they are shipped to the penitentiary. In Alexandria, he met a man who allegedly told him he had been smuggling terrorists and Somali pirates into the U.S. El-Atari immediately informed the authorities. Then in Arlington he met Jorge Torrez, who proceeded to tell him how he killed two little girls in Illinois in 2005 and a Navy sailor in Arlington in 2009. El-Atari wore a hidden recorder, became a crucial witness in both cases, and Torrez received the death penalty for the Arlington murder, with his Illinois trial still to come.
This was seen as high-quality inmate cooperation by El-Atari, who detailed it in a letter to his sentencing judge in 2012 (see below). The 2009 murder of Amanda Jean Snell hadn’t been solved until El-Atari came forward. So after he testified against Torrez in April of this year, a motion was filed in federal court in Alexandria, seeking to reduce El-Atari’s sentence. The federal docket has the entire transaction under seal. But U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee held a hearing in El-Atari’s case on May 9, and federal records show that El-Atari was released from prison that same day. Online chatter indicates that El-Atari is back out and about driving flashy cars, but that could not be confirmed independently. His lawyer did not return messages seeking comment, and el-Atari could not be located.
El-Atari’s strange road to freedom began in the summer of 2009, when federal authorities charged him with bank fraud and he vanished from Loudoun County. He was picked up in Texas in late January 2010. After he was returned to Virginia and placed in the Alexandria city jail, he met Anthony Joseph Tracy, a different kind of scam artist. Tracy, already charged with immigration fraud, allegedly told El-Atari that he was helping members of the al-Shabab terrorist group in Somalia obtain visas to enter the U.S. Tracy wound up pleading guilty, got a short sentence, then spent two more stints in jail for violating his probation, court records show.
El-Atari also then cooperated against the bank officer who he said taught him his scam for obtaining big loans with phony insurance documents, United Bank senior vice president Sisssaye Gezachew. Gezachew pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 months. Meanwhile, El-Atari pleaded guilty in April 2010, was sentenced in August that year and ordered to repay the banks $53 million, since he’d already repaid more than $17 million with his one-man ponzi scheme.
Still in 2010, the former restaurateur was placed in the Arlington jail and met Torrez. Torrez was awaiting trial for abducting two women in Arlington, then driving one to Prince William County, raping her and leaving her for dead in the snow. When Torrez discussed trying to kill the witnesses in that case, el-Atari was wearing a recorder. When Torrez discussed killing Amanda Jean Snell, who had lived several doors down from him at Fort Myer, El-Atari again taped it. When Torrez described killing an eight- and a nine-year-old girl in his hometown of Zion, Ill., and having absolutely no remorse, El-Atari got it on the wire.
“Does a lion feel remorse when it kills a hyena?” Torrez can be heard telling El-Atari during the taped conversation.
“You don’t feel bad?” El-Atari asked during another conversation.
“Nope,” Torrez responded.
“At all?” El-Atari asked again.
This was not your average “jailhouse snitch” material. This was serial killer stuff, and certainly El-Atari was putting his own safety on the line with a guy who may have killed three people and tried to kill a fourth before he was even 21 years old. Prosecutors apparently believed that El-Atari’s cooperation was crucial to their cases. He testified in the murder case against Torrez on April 23, and a sealed motion was filed on April 29. A hearing was held on May 9 where Judge Lee, who has heard from his share of convicts both on the federal bench and during his time as a Fairfax County judge, ordered him released that day.
Court watchers often see jailhouse informants testify, but we don’t always see (or follow up on) what happens to that informant later. In El-Atari’s case, he likely was looking at serving 122 months, or a little more than 10 years, of his original 144-month sentence. He served 51 months, so he received a 71-month reduction, or about six years off his sentence. He presumably still is required to make his $53 million restitution.
Was it worth it? His victims were banks, who presumably were insured. He helped get a rapist and killer off the streets. Below, you can read his letter to Judge Lee from 2012, in which he discussed that “I know that my fraud was wrong and I know that innocent people were hurt by my actions.” If you were the judge, what would you do with El-Atari, based on his cooperation?