Informant tells of role in FBI probes
By SALVADOR HERNANDEZ
Since he was a teen, Craig Monteilh has pretended to be someone he wasn't – Russian, Muslim, a white supremacist.
It was a skill he learned early, says Monteilh, a 47-year-old Irvine man who, according to court records, provided information to the FBI.
He learned to gain people's trust – even while pretending to be someone else. It's a skill that FBI agents and police officers helped him hone, he says. It's a skill that he sharpened in his role as an informant in several investigations.
First recruited by narcotics investigators in late 2003, Monteilh says he gained the trust of law enforcement officials by giving information on bank robberies, murder-for-hire investigations and cases involving white-supremacist gangs.
His role as an informant in state prison provided early training, says Monteilh, who is African American, but light-skinned. After being arrested for grand theft in 2002, he was sentenced to state prisons in Tehachapi and Chino. There, he pretended to be Caucasian to blend in with white supremacists.
Six years later, he would be involved in the case of Ahmadullah Sais Niazi, a Tustin man arrested on suspicion of lying on immigration forms about ties to terrorist organizations. Monteilh's name and picture would appear in several news reports. In a court hearing, an FBI agent says that Niazi was recorded in a conversation calling Osama bin Laden "an angel" and that an informant had been behind the recording.
Days later, Monteilh emerged as that informant.
The revelation raised questions about the FBI's tactics. Muslim leaders said the bureau was planting informants who were inciting violent and jihadist conversations. Since then, relations between Muslim organizations and the FBI have soured, leaders say.
Meanwhile, the FBI has repeated that it does not profile suspects, and while it has refused to comment on specific allegations, Monteilh's role or investigative techniques, a spokeswoman has said the FBI has followed criminal leads when investigations lead them there.
In multiple interviews with The Orange County Register, Monteilh detailed cases on which he worked with federal investigators and how he went from informing on inmates he befriended in prison to being involved with counter-terrorism.
FROM THE BEGINNING
"What do you answer when someone asks you: 'What are you?'" Monteilh says he was asked as a teenager by his father. He sometimes told classmates he was white or another ethnicity in order to be accepted.
"It depends on who is asking," Monteilh replied.
It was a point of contention between him and his father, Monteilh says, but it was a pattern he would repeat in life.
"I knew I could be anything, and it sounds strange, but it's true," he says.
After being sent to prison in 2002, Monteilh says, he associated with white supremacist groups for protection and convenience: "I played along with it because I wanted to affiliate with that protection bracket. It put me in a certain stature, so it was wise for me to affiliate."
After he was released, Monteilh maintained his contacts, exchanging letters with some of the inmates.
"Bro, you have no idea how good it was to get this letter from you," wrote one inmate in June 27, 2003. "I know you were and are a man of your word. As I told you, I'm usually a good judge of character."
The two exchanged at least a dozen letters and the inmate asked him to collect money from criminal associates in the Los Angeles area – which Monteilh did.
But months later, Monteilh says he was contacted in a gym by investigators with the Westminster Police Department, members of the regional narcotics task force. Monteilh talked to them about the people he met in prison and he made his choice – he became an informant.
He told authorities of shipments, pickups and drug transactions, Monteilh says.
But his former friend from Tehachapi prison would prove vital in sensitive investigations, he says.
In 2005, the inmate told Monteilh he was looking to rob a bank, and Monteilh in turn told his FBI contact. When the former inmate attempted to rob a bank in South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, authorities were waiting for him.
"It was that case that my handler's supervisor thought: 'This guy can get information,'" he says.
In his role as an informant, Monteilh says, he was at first paid for each piece of information. Then it was a monthly payment. From 2003 to 2006, Monteilh claims, he made $72,000 to $144,000, income he got as an informant but listed on tax returns as being earned as a fitness instructor.
By July 2006, Monteilh says, he was working as an informant for the Orange County Joint Terrorism Task Force, pretending to be a man named Farouk al-Aziz. In that role, Monteilh says, he was instructed to infiltrate local mosques and gain the trust of local religious leaders.
BACK IN PRISON
He continued in that role until 2007, he says, when he was arrested on suspicion of grand theft in a case involving steroids – a case Monteilh maintains was related to a case he worked as an informant. While in jail, Monteilh continued to provide information to the FBI, he says.
"She knew, wherever I was, I would keep my ears open," Monteilh says.
That was the case with a man named Voicu Gheorghe Gruia, Monteilh says, a man arrested in 2007, who was charged with more than 50 counts of identity theft. Gruia was accused of using machines known as "skimmers" to copy sensitive credit card and debit card information from unsuspecting victims, then using the information to steal money from their accounts.
Monteilh met Gruia in Men's Central Jail, he says, and was asked by his FBI handler to find the "skimmers" that were alleged to have been used in Gruia's operation. According to court records, Gruia was held in lieu of $1 million bail, but had to prove the money was collected by legitimate means before being released.
In January 2008, Gruia is alleged to have contacted his wife and told her he met someone in prison who told him he could get him released, according to court records. In exchange, the other prisoner asked for a "skimmer." But when Gruia's wife, and an associate, drove to pick up the equipment on Jan. 28, 2008, they were arrested by local police and an agent with the FBI.
Jack Whitaker, a Tustin attorney who is now defending Gruia in a federal case, says an informant was involved in his client's case, though the identity that person remained unknown. Monteilh asserts that it was him.
When asked why he's decided to come forward about his involvement in criminal investigations, Monteilh does not deny he has an ax to grind. After admitting that he gave federal authorities information on people who attended local mosques, he has received threatening phone calls and been physically threatened.
Monteilh says he had an unwritten agreement with the FBI to receive a lump sum at the end of his work with them – which the agency reneged on. He filed a $10 million claim against the agency alleging that his civil liberties were violated – a claim that was denied by the agency. He and his attorney plan to file a lawsuit against the FBI.