LAS VEGAS – Inside a casino’s lavish high roller’s lair last August, a formally-attired waitstaff served sumptuous plates of steak and Dover sole to some of the world’s biggest gamblers. The floral-scented serenity that evening was broken by two occupants of a corner table who spoke loudly and profanely about kilos of cocaine and how best to conceal assault rifle ammunition in airplane luggage.
One of them – a large, disheveled man resembling a Hispanic Tony Soprano – boomed through a story about a SWAT raid on the hideout of a criminal gang he was with and how he narrowly avoided the jaws of a police dog named Booger.
His lanky, middle-aged companion – who wore an all-black outfit capped by an Air Jordan-branded knit hat – shared a tale about cursing out agents of Australia’s version of the FBI, his telling punctuated with well-timed Aussie accents.
The other diners could fairly assume their sanctuary was under invasion by a pair of particularly reckless criminals. But these two men are, in theory, the good guys.
Both boast of having worked as criminal informants for federal law enforcement branches looking to bring down dangerous drug traffickers and would-be terrorists, sensitive work that requires secrecy and discretion. The men exercised neither skill on this evening.
Instead, during 24 hours in Las Vegas that also included raucous hands of high-stakes blackjack with an electronica DJ and a private jet trip home, the pair fed closely guarded confidential information to a reporter in a gambit to coerce the FBI into paying out $80,000 for services rendered in a still-secret federal operation.
The episode is a rare and unnerving look into the murky world of confidential informants and the questionable characters that law enforcement officials sometimes rely on to ensnare and convict criminals. Though confidential informants are inescapable denizens of the American criminal justice system, their roles are typically only thrust into the public eye when something goes awry. That includes cases such as that of Whitey Bulger, who built his empire as a murderous Boston mob boss through his decades-long relationship with a corrupt FBI agent.
The Hispanic man – who will be identified in this article as “The Informant” in order to protect his identity – said he had played a central role in an elaborate 2017 FBI sting in which he allegedly lured a target into making a purported bomb to be used in a drug world murder. But more than a year later, the target had yet to be arrested for the bomb-related charges. The Informant and his Las Vegas companion, Robert “R.J.” Cipriani, concluded that unwanted publicity might pressure the federal government to finally indict the suspect and pay off the confidential informant behind the case.
The scheme bore the frenetic hallmarks of Cipriani, 57, a professional blackjack player and convicted white-collar felon. Cipriani has since 2016 tirelessly publicized his own role in the federal takedown of an international drug-trafficker who recruited him to launder millions at high roller tables.
While picking his teeth over post-dinner coffee, Cipriani envisioned The Informant being lauded in headlines as “an American hero” upon the revelation that an immigrant civilian operative was central to bringing down an alleged wannabe terrorist. Cipriani made clear he desired a piece of that fame for himself, at one point proposing that he would wear a “Make America Great Again” hat for a photo shoot to accompany this article.
In late October, Department of Justice prosecutors with the District of Arizona formally charged Tucson resident Ahmad Suhad Ahmad, 30, with charges including distributing information relating to explosives, destructive devices and weapons of mass destruction. The unsealed criminal complaint largely matched the story The Informant told the reporter in August: That Ahmad had traveled to a Las Vegas condominium to make what he thought was an explosive device to be used to kill a Mexican drug world target.
Ahmad is set to be arraigned on Friday, with a trial date set for January. The judge in the case has ordered that Ahmad remain detained until trial citing, among other reasons, Ahmad’s apparent longtime substance abuse problems. Ahmad’s attorney, public defender Walter I. Gonçalves, did not return multiple phone messages seeking an interview.
Before Ahmad’s arrest was made public, Cipriani already knew that he had been taken into custody. “They got him,” Cipriani revealed to a reporter, after months of him aggressively pushing for the publication of a story about The Informant’s role in the case.
But he reversed course after USA Today contacted the FBI and Department of Justice for comment. Cipriani sent a message to a reporter that the call to the FBI was “causing a lot of problems” for himself and The Informant. Cipriani later threatened to sue USA Today for “$100+ million dollars” if the newspaper published a story about The Informant’s stated work.
The Department of Justice in the District of Arizona and the Phoenix FBI field office declined to comment on the case or confirm The Informant’s involvement in it.
For prosecutors, an informant publicly proclaiming his role in a major investigation – before the defendant has even been arrested – poses a unique hazard. The government typically guards such information closely and prefers to reveal any information about its informants near the eve of a trial, and only after plea negotiations have been abandoned.
Prosecutors have many reasons for such secrecy, including a reluctance to disclose details about the informant’s background that a defense attorney might use to undermine the government’s case.
Alexandra Natapoff, a Professor of Law at U.C. Irvine who has spent years studying law enforcement informants, said that while an informant outing themselves in a case before they are forced to is unusual, issues with their trustworthiness are regularly encountered.
“One of the great risks of using informants is prosecutors and agents become reliant on inherently unreliable people to make their cases,” she said.
In this instance, The Informant readily acknowledged during dinner that he started his career as a drug dealer. He parlayed that into a nearly two-decade tenure as a federal informant during which he boasted of helping to lock up 168 criminal targets in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars from the government. While some of that money was earmarked for moving expenses to protect his safety, he said he often just pocketed it and stayed put.
The Informant said his background could be confirmed in a prior case in which he testified under oath. Records in that case reflected much of his account.
James Wedick, a former supervisory agent who spent 35 years in the FBI, said that The Informant’s revelations to a reporter would inevitably cast scrutiny on his credibility as a witness in the Ahmad case.
“It’s obvious that this guy is manipulating what he wants to happen, and chief among his concerns is the eighty grand,” Wedick said.
The spare bullets lure
Between mouthfuls of seafood bisque and steak, The Informant detailed what he claimed was a successful operation to convince Ahmad, a Baghdad native who immigrated to the United States a decade ago, to build what turned out to be an inactive bomb.
The Informant said he took his car to the Tucson auto shop where Ahmad worked and left some bullets inside his car to catch Ahmad’s attention.
He continued to visit the auto shop and befriended Ahmad. The Informant said he first bought drugs from Ahmad before shifting their conversation to making bombs. He said he told Ahmad he needed a car bomb to kill a Mexican cop who had stolen cocaine from his organization.
The Informant said he grew to like Ahmad and made sure he really was a knowledgeable bomb maker – not somebody entrapped into committing a serious crime.
“I didn’t want the guy to go to Youtube to figure it out and he is making the bombs because of me,” he said.
After flying on an FBI-arranged private jet to Las Vegas, The Informant said he and Ahmad went to a high-rise condo in the Mandarin Oriental. There, he alleged, Ahmad used fake C-4 provided by the FBI to turn a laptop into what he thought was an explosive device.
The Informant’s account was a more descriptive version of the charges prosecutors filed in a criminal complaint unsealed October 29.
Prosecutors allege that Ahmad traveled to Las Vegas on April 26, 2017, and while at a condo in the city “built the device and described what he was doing to one of the undercover agents.”
“Ahmad then guided the undercover agent on how to make a second device,” reads the complaint. “Once both devices were completed, Ahmad explained how they operated.”
Ahmad allegedly believed his bomb was going to be detonated in the United States when its target visited to attend a sporting event. The criminal complaint states that the C-4 and blasting caps Ahmad allegedly used to build the bombs “were inert items controlled by the FBI.”
Playing a “big doper”
The Informant said he prides himself on his eighteen-year tenure helping federal agents make these kinds of cases. He showed off the soft palms of his hands as evidence of a life spent not working.
Though he says he never knows exactly how much he’ll earn, he appears to be paid more for higher-profile cases. In recent years there have been few splashier FBI initiatives than ensnaring Middle Eastern men in conjured-up plots related to terrorism or weapons of mass destruction.
The Informant said he’s able to convince targets that he’s a “big doper” or Latin American drug dealer because he approaches the job like a high stakes method actor – the Daniel Day Lewis of the underworld.
For part of his life, he wasn’t acting. The Informant said he started as a drug dealer in his native country, which USA Today is not naming in order to further protect his identity. He then fled to the United States to escape rivals who wanted him dead.
He said he worked as a laborer until he had to handle an immigration issue that brought him into contact with a DEA agent. He said he impressed the agent with his knowledge of the international drug business, and in 2000, he agreed to help American officials infiltrate drug-trafficking organizations and other criminal enterprises.
He described crossing borders to cavort with some of the most dangerous criminals in the world. Even though they would certainly kill him if they found out he was working for American law enforcement, he said he liked spending time with his targets. They were his kind of people. He celebrated holidays with them. They cried with him when one of his grandparents died.
At one point, he said he decided to abandon the life of a confidential informant and get back into the drug trade.
“Drug dealers don’t do no paperwork,” reasoned The Informant, who is not fond of bureaucracy.
But he ultimately returned to the DEA, he said, after his handler threatened to charge and extradite him if he refused.
During previous testimony, a defense attorney asked The Informant what motivated him to do the work he did. The Informant responded that he liked the excitement and enjoyed helping to send bad people to jail.
In speaking to a USA Today reporter, he acknowledged he also had a simpler motivation.
“I’m not a [expletive] hero,” he said. “I’m getting paid.”
“It’s not supposed to be a career”
The Informant boasted about his work in another case in which suspected violent criminals allegedly took part in a conspiracy that was actually a ruse orchestrated by the FBI. The details of the case illustrate how much discretion The Informant has to sculpt operations, indictments and even potential prison sentences.
Testimony in that case showed that The Informant picked and lured his own criminal targets and conceived of much of the imaginary crime they allegedly took part in.
The case also shows why the government often takes pains to prevent their confidential informants from having to testify.
Prosecutors revealed his identity before trial and, as required by law, disclosed information about him that would be considered helpful to the defense. That included a disclosure that he had previously been arrested while allegedly attempting to transport dozens of pounds of marijuana across the country.
Court records filed by a defense attorney noted his efforts to use his status as an informant to escape trouble in that incident, in which he was not charged. Asked about the trafficked marijuana on the witness stand, The Informant was noncommittal about whether it was in connection with his DEA work.
Wedick, the former supervisory FBI agent, said that federal handlers are supposed to scrutinize informants who have been in the business for five years in order to root out those with credibility problems. He said it is unlikely for a person who is not a criminal themselves to be able to regularly generate new cases for their handlers.
“It’s not supposed to be a career,” Wedick said.
The Informant’s prior court appearance also disclosed some of the little-known economics of being a paid federal source. Court testimony showed that he had received more than $300,000, much of it in cash, from the federal government for his work to that point. His payment included tens of thousands of dollars for relocation expenses to ensure his protection.
The Informant said instead of using that money to move, he considers it an additional form of compensation.
“They think I move all the time,” he said.
Blackjack and good karma
By last August, sixteen months since the alleged sting in Las Vegas, there had been no indictment against Ahmad for charges related to alleged bomb-making. The Informant said he was impatient for Ahmad to be charged because he considered him a danger to society, but also because he felt he deserved to be paid for his work.
“It’s really hard to do what I do,” The Informant explained. “It’s dangerous.”
He reached out to a reporter through Cipriani, a longtime friend who sometimes goes by “Robin Hood 702,” a reference to benevolent acts he says he performs in Las Vegas, which has the area code 702.
In recent years, Cipriani has sought to inject an audacious sort of publicity and notoriety into the typically hushed world of life as a criminal informant.
Cipriani’s best-known takedown began in 2011, with him enmeshed in an international drug trafficker’s scheme to launder millions in illegal proceeds at blackjack tables.
Owen Hanson, a former USC football player who was ultimately convicted of running a multi-million dollar illegal betting and drug-trafficking empire, had recruited Cipriani to wager millions in cash in an Australian casino and then transport his winnings to Las Vegas tables in the form of casino checks.
But after Cipriani lost $2.5 million at the tables — which he claimed was purposeful in order to extricate himself from Hanson — the drug-trafficker turned against him, and Cipriani ultimately assisted the FBI in indicting Hanson and securing his conviction last year. Cipriani has maintained that he was a victim and helped to publicize his role in the case in outlets including Rolling Stone, Washington Post, Vice, and the San Diego Union-Tribune. He was not charged in the scheme.
Hanson’s attorneys, however, called Cipriani an “important, yet unindicted, member of the alleged conspiracy.” His role in attempting to launder drug proceeds at blackjack tables led major casinos to ban him for years. Those casinos later reinstated Cipriani’s gambling privileges, he said, thanks to a letter the DOJ wrote on his behalf.
Though Cipriani styles himself as a vigilante, his own criminal rap sheet dates back to at least 1986, when records show he was convicted of carrying an unlicensed firearm in his hometown of Philadelphia. In 1999, he was arrested as a fugitive from authorities in Las Vegas, where he faced felony check fraud charges in a case that has since been sealed from public view. In 2005, he was again arrested as a fugitive, this time in California, on a warrant for insurance fraud in Pennsylvania. He was convicted in that case of a felony for filing a fraudulent claim concerning water damage in his home, records show. The next year, he was charged in Los Angeles with domestic violence in a case that was later dismissed.
A former pretzel vendor who filed for his second bankruptcy in 2012 and, according to those records, owed more than three quarters of a million dollars in federal income tax and unpaid rent and credit cards, Cipriani showed off a vastly different lifestyle during the weekend in which he arranged for a reporter and The Informant to meet at the ultra-swanky high roller area of a Las Vegas casino.
When he pointedly asked a casino teller, with a reporter by his side, how much cash he had on deposit there, he was told he had more than $3 million. Cipriani said he had accrued the money playing blackjack, crediting good karma for his luck.
Though casino officials have asked him to stop hectoring the celebrities, he interrupted electronica DJ Tiesto’s breakfast and later convinced him to join him at his private blackjack table. As they wagered up to $20,000 per deal, Cipriani belted out Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson songs inches from the dealer’s face and then attempted to get Tiesto to agree to produce a song for his wife, a Brazilian singer.
Cipriani ultimately flew home to Los Angeles, snoring under a blanket on a private jet provided by the casino, a perk he says he enjoys on a nearly weekly basis. His favored drink – extra-frothy, fresh pineapple juice – awaited him on board. He boasted to the reporter accompanying him that he also negotiates favorable gambling terms from casinos that ensure him partial forgiveness if he incurs a massive loss.
“I squeeze them for every [expletive] thing I can get,” Cipriani said of the casinos.
He said he’s coached his friend, The Informant, to take a similar approach with the federal government.