What is the Witness Protection Program? And what, exactly, happens when a person enters Witness Protection? Here's what you need to know about the secretive program, adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.
1. The witness protection program used to provide plastic surgery for witnesses.
To entice mobster Aladena Fratianno to testify in the late 1970s, the program paid for his wife’s surgery, including breast implants and a facelift. One unnamed participant was given a psychologist-suggested penis surgery—not to disguise his identity, but because he was depressed and needed a self-esteem boost in order to testify. As of the late '90s, it became the policy to not provide plastic surgery for witnesses. They would help witnesses get it, but government money would not be used for it.
2. The Witness Protection Program is officially known as the Witness Security Program, or WITSEC.
WITSEC is run not by the FBI, but by the U.S. Marshals Service. In 2013, their then-associate director for operations David Harlow explained, “No one knows what we do to protect witnesses, and it’s good for us.”
3. The Witness Protection Program began as a result of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970.
In part, the Act said that the government would protect witnesses. At the time, members of the mafia were known to kill witnesses in advance of, or after, testifying. Their families were also in danger.
4. WITSEC was founded by Gerald Shur
Shur worked for the Justice Department at the time; he was the head of the Witness Security Program for around 25 years and was instrumental in turning it into what it is today. He’s also how we know a lot of what we know about mysterious program—he co-wrote a book titled WITSEC: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program. Shur died in 2020.
5. Thousands of people have been moved as part of the Witness Protection Program.
Between witnesses and their families, around 19,000 people have been moved thanks to the program. In 2012, the reported cost of keeping WITSEC running was about $10 million a year.
6. According to the government officials in charge of the program, WITSEC has a 100-percent success rate.
That means that witnesses who have remained in it and followed all the rules—more on that later—have not been harmed as a result of testifying.
7. There were a few protected witnesses before WITSEC actually began.
One of them was Joe Valachi, who was sort of an inspiration for the program. In 1963, Valachi turned in criminals he knew from his participation in the Mafia in exchange for safety in prison. Government officials realized that offering protection was an effective way to convince criminals and witnesses to come forward, and they officially started WITSEC around 1970.
8. One early WITSEC participant was Joseph “The Animal” Barboza.
Barboza, a murderer who testified against the mob in the late 1960s, was sent to California with a new identity. Unfortunately, he may have killed again. Eventually, he was shot, probably by the people he’d testified against.
9. The fact that Valachi and Barboza were criminals isn’t unusual for WITSEC.
According to Shur, about 95 percent of the witnesses in WITSEC are criminals in their own right. Around 10 to 20 percent of them will go on to re-offend. Because of that, it’s a risky and controversial program. But the Justice Department notes the upside: It claims that trials with witnesses in WITSEC testifying have an 89 percent conviction rate.
10. There are rules for entering the Witness Protection Program.
According to Shur, people hoping to enter witness protection have to sign a list of rules. One of the rules is a pledge to, in his words, "be a good person and live a normal life." And of course, they wouldn’t be put into WITSEC unless being a witness in their particular case would have to put them at risk.
11. The first thing that a witness in the program will experience is orientation.
There’s a WITSEC Safesite and Orientation Center in the Washington, D.C. area where six separate families can stay without coming into contact with each other. Family members go through medical, dental, and psychological exams. Each adult is also interviewed about their job skills so they can be placed in a new location with a job that makes sense. So in real life, lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier probably wouldn’t have been placed in a convent.
12. Witnesses also get a new name—but taking a new first name is optional.
Sometimes it’s easier for a person to keep their first name, so they always answer when they’re called and they don’t have to fully change their signature. They can choose their new last name, but it must be unrelated to their life—so no family members’ maiden names—and make sense ethnically.
13. Witnesses get new identifying documents.
They include things like birth certificates and driver’s licenses. Witnesses also receive new Social Security numbers and legalized name changes. Kids get school records copied in their new name—and though some parents wanted these records subtly improved, Shur refused. The program ensures that furnished houses, schools, and even religious institutions are in place at the locations where people get sent.
14. Witnesses also get money.
In Shur’s days, they based the amount of money on the cost of living in the new area. For about six months, witnesses received a stipend.
15. Witnesses are sent literally anywhere but the places they most want to go.
Shur would ask a witness to list places where they’d like to go—and then send them elsewhere. If they were telling Shur that they wanted to go there, he found it safe to assume that they’d told other people that, too. But it was also a priority to send them somewhere that they wouldn’t feel like a total fish out of water. So people from cities were sent to cities and people from small towns were sent to small towns.
16. Witnesses make some unusual requests.
Shur told a story about a witness requesting for his girlfriend to enter the program with him—but his wife to be left behind because he knew that she would be murdered if she didn’t come with him. In Shur’s words, “The object was to have me become the substitute for his divorce court. I wasn’t about to do that.”
17. Each witness is assigned a U.S. Marshal.
If they’re in a dangerous situation, like a court appearance, they’re being monitored 24/7 by the Marshal. But once they’re just living in their new home with their new identity, the witness only needs to be in touch with their marshal once a year.
18. WITSEC participants are allowed to talk to the family that they’ve had to leave behind.
There’s a secure mail program, but they can’t keep letters after they’ve read them. The marshals take them. They can also make phone calls to their families via secure lines that the program sets up for them.
19. Not everyone is in the traditional version of the program.
As of 2010, there were about 500 prisoners who were in WITSEC. There isn’t much information on how this works now, but a person would at least receive a name change so that they are no longer able to be easily located. In the late '90s, it was discovered that certain witnesses like this had received special meals and phone call privileges in exchange for testifying.
20. The program has an excellent track record—but it isn't foolproof.
There's at least one documented case of witnesses being identified in their new lives—by one another. An audit published in 2005 revealed that two witnesses, who were acquainted before entering WITSEC, ran into each other at a convenience store. One of the witnesses was relocated.
21. One case involving kids led to a change in WITSEC policy.
Thomas Leonhard was divorced from his ex-wife, but had visitation rights to see his children. Then, his ex married a mafia informant, Pascal Calabrese. The informant, the wife, and the children were moved out of Buffalo, New York, in 1967. Leonhard was unable to get in touch with his children until 1975. He sued the U.S. government, which led to a change in WITSEC: Now, a parent with visitation rights has to approve their child’s participation.
22. Some witnesses have broken WITSEC's rules.
No one has been physically harmed for being in WITSEC, but some have broken the strict rules set for them, which has predictably caused problems. Daniel LaPolla, for example, returned to Connecticut in the 1970s to go to a funeral. He also decided to pop by his old house, which had been boobytrapped. When he unlocked the door, a bomb went off, and he was killed.
23. Henry Hill—the mobster featured in Goodfellas—ended up in the Witness Protection Program.
Hill was a protected witness in the 1980s. His wife and two kids were also in WITSEC, and they all lived in Redmond, Washington, together. But that didn’t stop Hill from getting married under his new identity. He moved in with his new wife, Sherry Anders—and unsurprisingly, his other wife Karen found out. The two women seemingly put an end to the madness by confronting Henry together. But Sherry had a change of heart and wouldn’t end her marriage to him. Eventually, WITSEC removed the entire Hill family from the program because they were causing too much chaos.