NEW YORK – It was a love story like no other: a crack-addicted prostitute finding comfort and safety in a convicted Islamic terrorist who played a key role in the prosecutions of two men in the "millennium plot" to blow up Los Angeles International Airport.
Now, the testimony of the prostitute who received immunity for admitting her own crimes is being used by the U.S. government to try to keep Abdel Ghani Meskini, an Algerian, behind bars.
"I didn't trust anybody else in the state of Georgia more than I trusted him," the 33-year-old prostitute, Crystal Roughton, said reverently at a hearing in federal court in Manhattan last week to decide if Meskini violated his probation. The hearing resumes Tuesday.
Meskini himself had testified at the trials of two Algerian men — Ahmed Ressam and Mokhtar Haouari — both serving prison sentences in the airport plot. The plot was thwarted when Ressam, who trained in terrorist camps financed by Osama bin Laden, was arrested in Washington state trying to enter from Canada in an explosives-laden car.
The testimony won Meskini leniency — a six-year prison sentence even though federal sentencing guidelines called for a term of 14 to 17 years. Meskini has been jailed since he was detained by immigration authorities last November. He has applied for asylum.
Now, prosecutors have asked a judge to find Meskini violated probation at least nine times. The hearing over two days last week gave a glimpse into the world of a rare terrorism turncoat who tried to rebuild his life.
In this case, the government says Meskini returned to a criminal world and an increasingly dark existence that Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher LaVigne said left Meskini "in his own words ... ready to snap."
LaVigne said Meskini, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy in 2001 prior to the Sept. 11 terror attacks, had possessed a handgun in 2007, tried to buy an AK-47 assault rifle in the fall of 2009, and since 2006 had associated with criminals and frequented places where drugs were sold.
He said Meskini by December 2009 had become increasingly frustrated after working several years as an apartment manager, collecting rents, fixing apartments and assisting tenants who were immersed in criminal activities. By the fall of 2009, Meskini had visited radical anti-American websites and "sent emails expressing those types of sentiments," LaVigne said.
Meskini's lawyer, Mark DeMarco, counters that his client did not engage in criminal conduct and that his living conditions at an Atlanta apartment complex were approved by the U.S. government, including FBI and probation department officials.
Important to the government's case to keep Meskini in jail is the testimony of Roughton, who said Meskini asked her last year to try to get him the AK-47.
Roughton said Meskini protected her while she performed as a $300-per-hour prostitute as many as 20 times per week and sold an assortment of drugs. She said she spent the money on crack and sent some to her mother, who bought clothing and medicine as she cared for Roughton's son.
Meskini helped her create Internet ads, taught her not to leave a paper trail of anything with her name on it and showed her how to check the backgrounds of her clients, she said.
He did a lot "so I didn't need a pimp," Roughton said.
Also testifying at the hearing was FBI Agent James Paul Pinette, who said Meskini told him during an interview at his residence last October that he planned to leave the United States regardless of whether he had proper documentation.
"And then he added that he risked his life to get into the United States, and if he had to, he would risk his life to get out," the agent said.
Meskini had first entered the U.S. as a stowaway in 1994 on a boat to Boston. He later moved to Brooklyn, where he made tens of thousands of dollars in bank fraud and credit card schemes. It was a skill he once testified he learned when he stole checks from superiors while an officer in the Algerian Army in 1990-91.
Roughton said Meskini seemed to be living clean, a rarity in the 14-unit building he managed in Buckhead, Ga., where she estimated only three tenants did not participate in drugs or prostitution. She said eight women there were prostitutes and Meskini helped some of them, too.
"We woke up getting high. We went to sleep getting high. The way we made money was having gentlemen come and see you," he said. She said she and other prostitutes had occasionally given Meskini oral sex but she did not say he ever demanded it.
She said he lived purely enough that she was shocked once when she saw Meskini with a handgun. She said she cared enough about him that she went to work asking associates if they could locate an AK-47 when Meskini asked for it. She said he later said he found one on his own.
Earlier this year, the owner of the apartment complex where Meskini had worked told Roughton that Meskini was a terrorist.
"I almost spit in his face for disrespecting Ghani. ... I didn't believe it. No way in hell," she said, though she had testified that Meskini once said he had served time for running a gambling operation.
The testimony left U.S. District Judge John F. Keenan wondering why she was testifying if she had such strong feelings for Meskini.
"Because it is the truth," she said. And she added: "Because if I had gotten Ghani that AK and Ghani had used it and hurt innocent lives, I wouldn't want that on my conscience, to have knowingly helped a man who would have taken innocent lives."
"Are you mad at Ghani for any reason?" the judge asked her.
"No," she answered. "As weird as it is to say, no, I am not."
"As far as you are concerned, you still like him?" Keenan asked.
"Yes, as crazy as that is, I know," she said.