12 Secrets of the Witness Protection Program
By Jake Rossen
Developed by Justice Department employee Gerald Shur and beginning in 1971, the Federal Witness Protection Program—or Witness Security Program (WITSEC)—has provided safe harbor for over 18,000 federal witnesses and their families in exchange for damning testimony. It was WITSEC and the promise of a government-subsidized hiding place that convinced several “made” men of the mafia to turn their backs on organized crime and help prosecutors convict numerous leaders, from John Gotti to several members of the Lucchese family.
Protecting whistleblowers from the dangerous criminals they implicate doesn’t come cheap. By some estimates, the government spends upwards of $10 million annually [PDF] to keep the WITSEC program going. But witnesses with information so provocative their life is at risk make for strong cases: Trials involving WITSEC have an 89 percent conviction rate.
The U.S. Marshals assigned with forging new identities for these individuals are notoriously guarded and rarely speak on the record about program specifics. But that hasn’t stopped bits of information from leaking out. With author Pete Earley, Shur co-wrote a book, WITSEC: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program, on his career; over the years, various WITSEC enlistees have spoken to media about the stress of assuming new identities. Here’s as much detail about the program you’re going to get without finding yourself in a considerable amount of trouble.
1. THEY HAVE ORIENTATION.
For years, WITSEC was plagued by a haphazard method of educating enrollees on what was required of them and what they might expect from being relocated and assigned a new name. In some cases, witnesses waited months for new birth certificates or social security numbers. To help streamline the process, the Marshals instituted a clearinghouse in 1988 for recent inductees in the Washington, D.C. area. The WITSEC Safesite and Orientation Center can house up to six families at a time; visitors are driven there in vehicles with blacked-out windows and locked in separate rooms to ensure they don’t see one another. If trouble happens to follow, the site can also withstand bomb blasts. Owing to the trauma of upending their lives, psychological counseling is available. Within two weeks, they’re shown video of their new location.
2. THEY’RE MOSTLY CRIMINALS.
The movie trope of an innocent man or woman caught up in criminal crossfire or as an unwilling party to illegal dealings is a rare event in the real world. Shur estimated that less than 5 percent of relocated witnesses are completely free of any wrongdoing; the vast majority are career hoods looking to be absolved of charges for their own activities and protected from retribution. Different sources put the recidivism rate for WITSEC members at anywhere between 10 and 20 percent. In 1995, Portland police chief Michael Chitwood complained that Maine had become a “dumping ground” for criminals in the program: Local law enforcement is not informed when a criminal has been dropped off in their territory and often fear they can bring an entire network of illegal activity into an area.
3. THEY SOMETIMES KEEP THEIR FIRST NAME.
Shur—who ran the program for more than 25 years while employed by the Department of Justice’s Organized Crime and Racketeering Section in Washington and continued as a consultant after retirement—disclosed in WITSEC that relocated witnesses were not usually given totally unfamiliar new names. To help them acclimate to their new identity, Shur usually allowed them to keep the same first name and even their initials. In addition to reacting when someone addressed them, witnesses could also catch themselves signing their old name before it was too late. Children learning their new last names are sometimes told to practice writing it.
4. PARENTS ASK FOR BETTER GRADES FOR THEIR KIDS.
WITSEC is responsible for assigning new social security numbers, driver’s licenses, and birth certificates to qualifying witnesses and their families. If a witness has children, it means school records will need to be modified so educators can see grades from earlier enrollment. Initially, a Washington area school agreed to help by getting redacted records and transferring grades and teacher notes into a new file. While the program usually keeps the same marks, Shur recalled that some parents asked him to improve their children's grades. He refused.
5. THEY USED TO GET GREAT PERKS—LIKE BREAST IMPLANTS.
In the 1970s and 1980s, WITSEC was having unprecedented success damaging the infrastructure of the mafia. Major players were testifying against bosses knowing they could start over somewhere else. Initially, the government was so keen on their continued participation—trials could go on for years—that they indulged some unnecessary expenses. Former mob hitman Aladena Fratianno requested (and got) the United States to pay for his wife’s breast implants, facelift, and dental work. Another had a psychologist backing his claim of poor self-esteem issues, and the government bought him a penile implant.
6. DIVORCED SPOUSES HAD KIDS HIDDEN FROM THEM.
In a landmark case that had far-reaching effects on WITSEC, Thomas Leonhard went public in the early 1970s with a story that was any parent’s worst nightmare. Because his ex-wife was married to a protected government witness, Leonhard (who had visitation rights) was not allowed to see their daughter on the grounds that her location and new identity would be compromised. When he filed for and was granted full custody, WITSEC officials still refused to disclose her location. The ensuing publicity led to an amendment in 1984 to WITSEC protocol that needs to take joint custody into account when relocating children—although ex-spouses still found it difficult to see their child via a circuitous airplane route under an alias. One father wondered whether he would ever be able to see his daughter’s graduation or wedding when she got older.
A non-program parent with visitation rights must now agree to have the child relocated. If they refuse and win full custody, the child will not be allowed to remain in their new identity.
7. THE MONEY DOESN’T LAST FOREVER.
WITSEC typically pays for witness housing in their new region, new furnishings, and a “salary” based on the cost of living in any given area. According to Shur, that amount was dependent on local economics and the size of the family. On average, members receive roughly $60,000 from the government before they’re expected to land jobs and become self-supporting within six months. At the height of the organized crime offensive, the Justice Department paid out as much as $1 million to witnesses who were testifying over long periods of time.
8. CRIMINALS HAVE USED IT TO COMMIT MORE CRIMES.
Law enforcement officials are quick to clarify that WITSEC is not a rehabilitation program: When career criminals who have never earned an honest living and have no job skills enter the workforce, their thoughts can—and often do—turn to illegal activity knowing their status will make it harder to face any consequences. Shur noted that a handful of witnesses used one new identity to run up significant debt, then told Marshals they’d been spotted by a rival and feared retribution. With another new name and city, they were able to flee creditors successfully—and collect more cost-of-living money from WITSEC. At one point, 32 witnesses had collectively racked up $7.3 million in unsecured debt, leading officials to begin threatening disclosure of their identities to creditors if the money wasn’t repaid.
9. THEY HAVE TO LIE TO NEW SPOUSES.
Getting married as a protected witness means having to do the one thing no partner should be expected to do: lie. All the time. WITSEC members are told not to divulge their prior identity to new spouses in case the relationship ever turns sour and the secret is revealed out of spite. When infamous mobster Henry Hill was in the program, he married Sherry Anders in 1981. Anders had no idea Hill, who was going by the name “Martin Lewis,” had seen more than his share of dead bodies—and happened to still be married under his real name, making her an unwitting party to bigamy. (The couple soon split up.)
10. STATES HAVE THEIR OWN PROGRAMS.
WITSEC is a federal program focused on making big cases against criminal enterprises with an accompanying credible threat to a witness’s life. But for many eyewitnesses who have observed gang killings or other street-level crime, it’s not likely the government is going to intervene. Instead, several regions have programs that offer relocation during and in the months immediately following trials. In Detroit, Project Safeguard provides lodging and food through private funding; Baltimore is considering a similar program, with officials hoping Congress will approve legislative spending for smaller-scale protection efforts.
11. PRISONERS CAN HAVE PERKS, TOO.
While WITSEC can offer suspended sentences to cooperating witnesses, some will still have to serve time in prison. To help incentivize these individuals, WITSEC can arrange for privileges far beyond the norm for an inmate. In 1996, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette revealed protected witnesses in custody enjoyed live lobsters and pig roasts via an anonymous ordering system at a commissary; they were also granted unlimited phone calls. Some prisoners used the latter to set up criminal activities or run telephonic credit card scams on the outside.
12. YOU CAN LEAVE ANYTIME—BUT YOU SHOULD THINK TWICE.
The U.S. Marshals are proud to say that not a single person has been hurt or killed while under their protection in the WITSEC program. Unfortunately, not all witnesses take the threat on their lives seriously. Some have left the program of their own volition or have broken the rules about returning to high-risk areas. Shur recalled the case of Daniel LaPolla, a witness who decided to ignore the program's warnings and return home for a funeral. His home was rigged to blow to pieces as soon as he turned the doorknob. “It blew up in his face,” Shur said.
All images courtesy of iStock.