An informant who admitted he defrauded more than $300,000 from victims — while he was working undercover for the FBI on a Palm Beach County, Florida terrorism sting — pleaded guilty to a federal fraud charge Friday.
In an unusual move, Mohammed Agbareia was immediately sentenced to two years and one month in federal prison.
As part of his plea agreement, the Palestinian man agreed to be deported to his native Israel after he serves his punishment.
Prosecutors previously said he admitted to FBI agents on several occasions that he was still committing crimes and continued doing so “despite numerous warnings to cease.”
It’s the second time in a dozen years that Agbareia, 51, has been sentenced to federal prison and ordered to leave the country.
He pleaded guilty to committing an almost identical “stranded traveler” fraud in 2006 in federal court in Alabama. He was sentenced to two years in prison, ordered to pay $91,000 in restitution and was supposed to be deported to Israel.
But he got a break and was released early – after serving just one year in prison – when federal prosecutors in Alabama petitioned a judge there in a sealed court record. Agbareia was also allowed to remain in the US.
After his release from prison in November 2006, he moved to the West Palm Beach area in October 2007 and began providing information “pertaining to national security” to authorities, court records show. The FBI called him a “national security asset” and praised his “usefulness as a provider of intelligence to the FBI” and work as an “informer” in court records filed in 2009.
Authorities said he resumed operating his lucrative fraud in 2007 and continued doing so until the day before he was arrested, on June 21.
His fraud involved taking advantage of the Islamic tradition of helping travelers in distress.
Investigators said Agbareia adopted various aliases and changed his voice to trick people into sending him money when he claimed his wallet or travel documents were stolen while he was traveling to mosques or to perform good deeds. He admitted he called potential victims he was supposed to meet and asked them to wire him money, which he picked up at local Western Union and Publix stores, investigators said.
Prosecutors, defense attorneys and the FBI have declined to confirm or deny Agbareia’s work as an informant in the local terrorism sting, but several sources told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that he was the main informant in the case. Prosecutors recently told the judge in the terrorism case that they were no longer calling one of the confidential informants to testify in that case. Prosecutors also invoked laws that are used to protect sensitive classified information to prevent the release of information about Agbareia’s work for the government.
When Agbareia pleaded guilty to a lone wire fraud charge on Friday, there was no overt mention of his role as an informant.
Sentencings are usually scheduled several weeks after a change of plea, but the defense asked Senior US District Judge Kenneth Marra for an immediate sentencing and prosecutors agreed. Both sides recommended two years and one month in prison followed by deportation. Agbareia also was ordered to pay $338,366 in restitution to his victims and is barred from ever returning to the US
Under the plea agreement, Agbareia will get no further sentence reduction for any assistance he has provided to prosecutors in any case, the judge warned him.
Officials said they placed Agbareia in solitary confinement at the Palm Beach County Jail after his role as an informant emerged shortly after his arrest.
Agbareia’s attorney Donnie Murrell said his client wanted to get out of the harsh conditions of solitary confinement at the jail and get moved to federal prison. He said prosecutors didn’t want to look like they were forcing the judge to accept the plea agreement “like a pig in a poke.”
Agbareia apologized and told the judge he wants “to forget about the nonsense” and start a new life in Israel. He said it was time for him to settle down with his family and “my own country would be best.”
“I’ve been here for 10 years and I appreciate the hospitality for me being here. It was my choice to volunteer,” he told the judge. “I’m looking forward to starting a new life.”
Muslim groups spent years helping investigators try to catch him and lobbying for his extradition from Canada in 2006. Officials from the Council on American-Islamic Relations said Agbareia had been targeting victims around the world since about 1986.
Two of the men accused in the terrorism sting case have already pleaded guilty.
The third suspect, Gregory Hubbard, 54, a former US Marine and sculptor from West Palm Beach, has been locked up for more than a year on allegations that carry a maximum punishment of 20 years in prison. He has pleaded not guilty to charges he tried to help Islamic State terrorists and tried to go fight with them in Syria.
Hubbard’s trial is scheduled for April in federal court in West Palm Beach. His defense attorneys, who also have not identified Agbareia by name, have asked a judge to throw out the allegations against Hubbard because of what they called “outrageous conduct” by the FBI and federal prosecutors.
Agbareia had no legal immigration status in the US.
The Department of Homeland Security allowed him to remain in the US on “deferred status” and he was allowed travel to Israel to obtain a new passport in 2011 and return to the US, prosecutors said in court.
©2017 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
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