Is former fed a kidnapper, or a whistleblower being framed?

John Carman is now locked up in a special housing unit of the San Diego MCC, a high-rise prison facility in the city’s downtown that overlooks the swanky Gaslamp Quarter.

Carman’s problems didn’t start where many people might expect, though — maybe north of the 4200 block of El Cajon Boulevard in San Diego, where gangs, hookers and drug dealers engage in the seedy ocean-evening dance of the hardscrabble streets.

To find the source of Carman’s troubles, we have to look further south, to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula and the resort city of Playa del Carmen near Cancun.

We also have to look to the mechanizations of the U.S. Department of Justice and a shady informant who is a convicted liar.
Carman was arrested in mid-March of this year on the basis of a sealed FBI complaint that accused him of conspiring to kidnap a U.S. citizen in a foreign country — Mexico. On the basis of that complaint, Carman was thrown in jail and denied bail. The actual indictment that was the basis for the charges against him was not issued until a couple weeks later — in early April of this year.

Carman is being painted by the FBI, which led the investigation, as a dangerous man who is a flight risk and who was about to engage in a violent crime. That’s the FBI’s story anyway. The truth may be far different — if we take into account the evidence that has surfaced since Carman’s arrest.

Carman’s imprisonment occurred during a tumultuous time for San Diego’s U.S. Attorney’s Office. Only a several months prior to his arrest, Carol Lam, the sitting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California (based in San Diego), was fired from her job by the Bush Administration. Lam’s ouster, along with the firings of seven other U.S. Attorneys around the country, has prompted congressional hearings and charges that the White House is seeking to politicize the Department of Justice.

In any event, Lam’s replacement, Karen Hewitt, took over as interim U.S. Attorney about a week before the FBI launched its investigation against Carman. This coincidence is only worth noting in that had Lam remained on the job as U.S. Attorney, it could be argued that the decision to proceed with the case against Carman might have played out differently.

The man in jail

But who is John Carman, and what does the FBI claim he did?

Carman is a 25-year veteran of federal law enforcement. Over the course of his career, he has worked for the U.S. Secret Service, the U.S. Mint Police and the U.S. Customs Service — which has since become part of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) under the Department of Homeland Security.

Carman now works as a private investigator in San Diego. It was as a result of pursuing a case in that line of work that he now finds himself jammed up by the FBI and Department of Justice.

The FBI claims that Carman conspired with a Mexican citizen, identified only as a “Source of Information” (SOI) in the indictment, to stage a “mock” arrest of a San Diego woman while she was on vacation in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, with the goal of extorting ransom money in exchange for her release.

The FBI’s case is built around this so-called SOI’s word as well as several email exchanges and telephone conversations between the SOI and Carman that were intercepted by the FBI with the cooperation of the SOI.

In fact, the whole case stems from the fact that the SOI approached the FBI claiming that Carman was seeking to kidnap a U.S. citizen, according to the original FBI-authored complaint against Carman.

On the surface, and given the speed and secrecy with which the arrest and indictment of Carman were rushed through the court system, with the full force of the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego, it might seem to most people that Carman is a dangerous man who deserves to be now sitting in prison.

But there is another side to this story, and some facts that don’t seem to quite add up in the script being advanced by the Department of Justice.

Gritty work

Carman’s version of the story is not pretty, but it also is not the tale of kidnapping as the government charges. As a PI, Carman does some dirty work. That’s the nature of his business.

In this case, and the government’s own complaint backs it up, Carman was allegedly working for the ex-husband of the woman who was supposedly the target of the “kidnapping.” The estranged couple were in the midst of a custody battle over their children and Carman believed the woman was a methamphetemine addict.

Knut Johnson, Carman’s San Diego-based attorney, alleges that the father asked Carman to help get the Mexican police to apprehend the woman on legitimate drug charges while she was vacationing in Mexico with the children.

“Carman told the SOI that [the father of the children] only wants to take the children away from [his ex-wife] and have her declared an unfit mother,” states the FBI’s complaint against Carman.

Johnson also claims that Carman believed the SOI was a Mexican law enforcer and that his intention was to have the SOI arrange for the woman to be arrested in Mexico because he believed she was a known meth user and would be carrying dope with her while vacationing in the Yucatan with her children.

Carman would be paid for his work after bail was posted for the woman — possibly by getting a cut of the bond money after it was returned, Johnson contends.

The whole plan was to assure the woman’s safe release in the wake of a legitimate arrest with the goal of removing the children from her custody because of the concern that the kids might be in danger due to the woman’s alleged drug use.

That’s slimy PI work to be sure, assuming Carman’s version of events is true, but it’s a far cry from kidnapping.

If the FBI held everyone in the country to the same standard it has set up in this case, then, based on Carman’s explanation of what happened, anyone reporting a crime to the police could potentially be accused of a kidnapping conspiracy.

Even the FBI’s complaint against Carman seems to indicate that Carman and the ex-husband appear more intent on undertaking what might best be described as an “intervention” designed to protect the children and to scare the woman straight without putting her in real jeopardy.

That's one way to explain the fact that the FBI concedes the woman’s parents were part of the alleged "kidnapping conspiracy."

“According to the SOI, Carman is conspiring along with the parents of [the woman] and [her] ex-husband … to abduct [the woman] in Mexico,” the FBI complaint alleges. “The SOI stated that Carman told him [the woman’s] parents are willing to pay up to one million dollars ransom.”

How is it a ransom, based on Carman’s version of the story, if the parents of the woman are “willing” to pay the money for her release and are part of the plan to have her arrested for the legitimate crime of carrying illegal drugs in Mexico — while on vacation with her children?

But if she is not a drug user as Carman believed, then, according to  Johnson, there would have been no arrest.

Johnson contends that Carman was very clear in his communications with the Source of Information that the woman could only be apprehended because she was carrying drugs and that “adults are put in jail” for such offenses. Johnson also contends that Carman was consistent in his conversations about the fact that bond money would be posted to assure her safe release.

The way it played out, however, is that Carman was the one arrested (in California), prior to the woman's planned trip to Mexico, and then locked away in a high-rise prison in downtown San Diego.

What the case really boils down to, it seems, is the word of the “Source of Information” and how his communications with Carman are interpreted. Johnson argues that the emails and telephone conversations obtained by the FBI can all be viewed in the context of Carman’s version of events, but that the government is choosing to portray those conversations as evidence of a kidnapping plot based on the word their “source.”

Also bolstering the believability of Carman’s version of events is his considerable expertise in law enforcement operations, including wiretaps and email-retrieval techniques. It would seem illogical for Carman to plan a “kidnapping” over the phone or via email — given that he had to know that would create a trail of evidence that could be easily accessed by the FBI.

Johnson also claims that it was the Source of Information, not Carman, who seemed to be baiting Carman during their conversations and interjecting words (including large dollar figures) that could later be deemed evidence for a case against Carman. (For example, the figure $500,000 is mentioned in Carman's indictment in reference to one of the recorded telephone conversations between Carman and the SOI. However, Johnson questions whether that figure really referred to bail of 500,000 pesos — about $45,000 U.S. dollars.)

But who is this “Source of Information?”

Again, the FBI’s own complaint, the basis of the indictment against Carman, seems to cut the legs out from the case against Carman.

From the FBI complaint:

The SOI was deported to Mexico from the United States in December 2006 and does not have permission to enter the United States. The SOI’s criminal history includes convictions for being an illegal alien found in the United States without permission and for making false statements to law enforcement officers.

So, the FBI’s “Source of Information,” by the bureau’s own admission, is a known liar.

In fact, Narco News sources claim that the individual who approached the FBI to set up Carman on the kidnapping charge is a former Mexican police officer named Eloy Fernandez Fernandez, who also previously worked as an informant for U.S. Customs.

Assuming that is the case, then the FBI surely knew their “Source of Information” should not be trusted. Fernandez lost his standing as a government informant after he was convicted of lying to the U.S. government — including the FBI itself.

The following is from a press release issued in 1996 by U.S. Customs:

Janet Napolitano, United States Attorney for the District of Arizona, announced today that Eloy Fernandez-Fernandez, 47 years old, a Mexican National residing in Yuma, pled guilty in Federal District Court in Phoenix, Arizona, to making false statements to the United States Government.

Fernandez admitted that on September 5 and 26, 1996, he made false oral and written statements to agents of the Office of Inspector General of the Treasury Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in order to induce those agencies to allow him to remain in the U.S. when he would otherwise be facing potential deportation.

Mr. Fernandez admitted that he fabricated a story that in September 1992, while present in the office of a Mexican police official in Tijuana, Mexico, he saw the Mexican official hand a shaving kit containing a large amount of U.S. currency to two men. Fernandez said that at the time of the incident he recognized one of the men as ... a former employee of the U.S. Customs Service. Fernandez said he did not know at the time who the second man was, but that he later learned that the man was ... an employee of the U.S. Customs Service. ...

… Fernandez said he fabricated the statement because he was concerned about his immigration status, was facing imminent exclusion from the United States, and had concluded that by making the false statement to law enforcement agents he could get them to allow him to remain in the United States to assist in an investigation of his claims.

Whistleblower retaliation

But there is even more to this story that should raise some eyebrows.

Carman, a former Senior Customs Inspector with U.S. Customs, has a track record of blowing the whistle on corruption within federal law enforcement, which he claims led to retaliation and his eventual dismissal from Customs.

In addition, for years, Carman operated a Web site called Customs Corruption that regularly exposed misdeeds and dysfunction within federal law enforcement and in the process embarrassed a lot of high-level government officials.

Carman rolled out a laundry list of corruption allegations against Customs employees along the California/Mexican border in civil litigation he filed in 2000 in federal court in San Diego.

The following is from a 2001 filing in Carman’s litigation:


...Customs personnel, including high-ranking personnel, have accepted bribes and engaged in other unethical and illegal activities, including falsifying reports, deleting suspect information from the Customs Intelligence Reporting Computer System, aiding and abetting in the facilitating and importing into the United States undocumented persons and contraband — such as narcotics.

By way of example, Carman, in his lawsuit, also charged that “high ranking officials” discouraged Customs line inspectors from searching suspect trucks. He also claimed those same Customs officials “provided preferential treatment to companies with ties to drug trafficking” and provided so-called “‘Bingo Cards’ or ‘Get out of Jail Free Cards’ to drug dealers.”

“Said cards, when presented by the holder, entitled the recipient to ‘preferential treatment’ at the United States borders,” the lawsuit asserted.

In the wake of reporting the alleged corruption to his superiors — and ultimately the media — Carman claims he was harassed, retaliated against and finally fired from U.S. Customs in 1997.

“While he was an employee, (Carman) was refused promotions to which he was entitled, has had his performance evaluations changed, has had test scores reduced … was stripped of his gun and badge,” Carman’s lawsuit alleged.

Carman contends the retaliation even continued after he lost his job, due to his ongoing efforts to expose corruption within Customs. In the lawsuit, Carman asserted that high-level Customs supervisors in San Diego, “made a concerted and intentional effort to prohibit (Carman) from securing a concealed weapons permit, which was necessary to (Carman in) successfully pursuing his livelihood of becoming a California licensed private investigator.”

“On or about June 16, 1999,” the lawsuit alleged, “United States Customs Officers, without basis … retaliated further against (Carman) by ordering and directing state law enforcement officers of the La Mesa Police Department … to stop (Carman’s) vehicle and detain and search him and his vehicle, which they did without probable cause....”

Court records indicate that in the wake of the traffic stop, Carman was prosecuted in state court for illegally carrying a concealed weapon. However, the state court threw out the case after finding that the police lacked reasonable suspicion for stopping Carman’s vehicle.

In his civil litigation, which was filed in federal court in June 2000, Carman alleged that his constitutional rights were violated by a host of defendants, including both U.S. Customs officials as well as local police officers. Carman sought monetary damages as well as a court-enforced end to the retaliation and discrimination against him.

The defendants denied Carman’s accusations in an initial answer filed in November 2000. The judge ultimately dismissed the U.S. Customs defendants from the lawsuit on technical legal grounds — including the qualified immunity from prosecution granted to federal law enforcement officers.

However, the judge ruled that two local police officers involved in the traffic-stop incident described by Carman should remain as defendants. After they successfully appealed that decision, the case was dismissed in the fall of 2004 by the U.S. Circuit Court judge.

’Something seriously amiss’

So it appears Carman is no ordinary gumshoe PI. He has made it a practice to kick the hornet’s nest within the law enforcement establishment. That, undoubtedly, has earned him some enemies.

On that score, one former high-level U.S. Customs Internal Affairs supervisor, Mark Conrad, who is now an attorney and also serves as Associate General Counsel for the National Association of Federal Agents, raises some serious concerns about the forces behind Carman’s arrest.

Conrad provided the following statement to Narco News:

There is something seriously amiss here though for the life of me, I cannot put my finger on it.  I am somewhat limited in what I can say here because I do not know anymore than what I have been told. I am also limited because John [Carman] has consulted with me about being either his attorney on this matter or part of a team. That remains undecided right now for several reasons, but the only one I will comment on is that I am not a criminal defense attorney and the stakes are very high here.

I will say that if the source of information that has provided the FBI its information is who I am led to believe it is, I am incredulous that the FBI or a prosecutor would give him the time of day with his track record of testimonial dishonesty. Further, if this source is who I think it is, then I would buy into the theory that this is a set-up. If it is a set-up, I have strong opinions on who is behind it — however, for now, I just cannot go there publicly.

Secondly, John authorized me to say this — that he was approached by the FBI several months ago [prior to his arrest] and asked to assist them in an operation that he felt was questionable. He consulted me on that. I advised him at that time to demand a written personal services contract with the FBI that would protect him from liability. If it were a legitimate FBI investigation, they would not have any problems with that. Suffice to say, no contract from the FBI was forthcoming.

John has been a thorn in the side of the legacy U.S. Customs Service for a number of years with his website “Customs Corruption” and he has made numerous enemies.

Finally, my last comment --- the government’s representation to the court that John is a flight risk is laughable. I know personally that John was offered a significant money making opportunity over a year ago as a security consultant to an international conference in Switzerland because I relayed the information to him. He declined because he did not want to leave Southern California even for a few weeks. John could not get enough assets together to flee to Los Angeles by Greyhound and have enough money to eat on.

Perhaps I’ll be able to comment more in the future but I have not spoken to John in 10 days or so and I am not sure what my status is going to be vis-à-vis his legal representation.

Narco News attempted to contact Annalou Tirol, the Assistant U.S. Attorney in San Diego handling the case against Carman, for comment.

The phone call was not returned.

Stay tuned….

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