Investigative Unit 2013: The Murder, The Mobster and The FBI

PHOTO: Russian ex-mobster and FBI informant Mani Chulpayev
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[As 2013 comes to a close, the ABC News Brian Ross Investigative Unit looks back on its major projects over the last year.]

As an informant for the FBI for nearly 10 years, Russian ex-mobster Mani Chulpayev has twice been able to avoid long prison terms or possible deportation for serious crimes such as extortion and kidnapping, as told in an ABC News investigation in May. The same report also revealed that the FBI is investigating allegations from Chulpayev's lawyer that one of its own agents influenced a murder investigation into the south Florida businessman.

Chulpayev's past first came to light when an Atlanta man told local police that Chulpayev had sold him a stolen car but that the investigation stalled when a local detective told him Chulpayev was protected by the FBI.

"He's just untouchable," Travis Jones told ABC News.

INTERACTIVE: The Life of Mani Chulpayev, The FBI Informant

When ABC News first approached Chulpayev at his luxury car business near Fort Lauderdale, he called local police and refused to answer questions. Just a few weeks later, he invited ABC News' Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross back, telling Ross he wasn't enjoying any special treatment by the government and that he actually regretted having been an informant in the first place.

"I don't think I got a better end of the deal," Chulpayev said.

"Being the situation reversed, I would have took (sic) my chances, I would have probably been convicted but I would have served my time. And not live this [expletive] life I'm living," he said, referring to having to sit down with Ross to answer questions.

In a colorful interview in which he drove Ross through south Florida, chain-smoking in his Maserati, Chulpayev admitted to his mobster past but said these days, he's a legitimate businessman and that the stolen car accusations were unfounded.

"I'm just smarter than you and that's it. I'm an average guy that thinks ahead. That's what it is and people can't stand it," he said. "Stupid people can't stand it. Smart people, they work with me."

But the ABC News investigation revealed that Chulpayev was asked for and gave his FBI agent and handler, Dante Jackson, gifts of cash, jewelry, watches, expensive sports shoes, basketball game tickets, hotel rooms and the use of luxury cars.

Chuplayev's attorney, George Plumides, said Jackson asked for the gifts and $3,500 in cash at the very time Chulpayev was under investigation for the murder. But he said the agent told his client the requests were for "lawful law enforcement purposes."

Just weeks after the ABC News interview, federal agents swarmed Chulpayev's business and he was arrested and charged with murder, accused of taking part in the 2012 death of a 19-year old Atlanta rap artist known as Lil Phat. Prosecutors in Fulton County, Georgia allege that Chulpayev helped arrange the murder with four other men after a dispute with the rapper, Melvin Vernell III, over drugs and "other business dealings." Chulpayev has maintained his innocence in the case.

Plumides said the FBI agent obstructed the murder investigation by attempting to get local police and detectives to leave Chulpayev alone. The attorney says those efforts actually complicated the investigation, leading to the murder charges his client now faces. Still, in the interview conducted before his arrest, Chulpayev insisted his violent days were behind him.

"There's no reason to be afraid of me. I'm the nicest guy you'll ever meet," he said.

Impact: During ABC News' investigation, the FBI as well as the Department of Justice's Inspector General opened their own investigations into the accusations leveled against FBI Agent Dante Jackson, who has yet to make a public statement.

Chulpayev's murder trial is scheduled to begin on January 6.

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