12 Secrets of the Witness Protection Program

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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.

12 Turkey Cooking Tips From Real Chefs

To get a turkey this beautiful, follow the tips below.
To get a turkey this beautiful, follow the tips below.
AlexRaths/iStock via Getty Images

When it comes to cooking a juicy, flavorful turkey, the nation's chefs aren’t afraid to fly in the face of tradition. Here are a few of their top suggestions worth trying this holiday season.

1. Buy a Fresh Turkey.

Most home cooks opt for a frozen turkey, but chef Sara Moulton recommends buying fresh. The reason: Muscle cells damaged by ice crystals lose fluid while the turkey thaws and roasts, making it easier to end up with a dried-out bird. For those who stick with a frozen turkey, make sure to properly thaw the bird—one day in the fridge for every 4-5 pounds.

2. Buy a Smaller Bird—or Two.

Idealizing the big, fat Thanksgiving turkey is a mistake, according to numerous chefs. Large birds take more time to cook, which can dry out the meat. Wolfgang Puck told Lifescript he won’t cook a bird larger than 16 pounds, while Travis Lett recommends going even smaller and cooking two or three 8-pound birds.

3. Brine That Turkey.


Manuta/iStock via Getty Images

Brining a turkey adds flavor, and it allows salt and sugar to seep deep into the meat, helping it retain moisture as the bird cooks. You can opt for a basic brine like the one chef Chris Shepherd recommends, which calls for one cup sugar, one cup salt, five gallons of water, and a three-day soak. Or, try something less traditional, like Michael Solomonov’s Mediterranean brine, which includes allspice, black cardamom, and dill seed. One challenge is finding a container big enough to hold a bird and all the liquid. Chef Stephanie Izard of Chicago’s Girl and the Goat recommends using a Styrofoam cooler.

4. Or, Try a Dry Brine.

If the thought of dunking a turkey in five gallons of seasoned water doesn’t appeal to you, a dry brine could be the ticket. It’s essentially a meat rub that you spread over the bird and under the skin. Salt should be the base ingredient, and to that you can add dried herbs, pepper, citrus and other seasonings. Judy Rodgers, a chef at San Francisco’s Zuni Café before her death in 2013, shared this dry rub recipe with apples, rosemary, and sage. In addition to a shorter prep time, chefs say a dry brine makes for crispier skin and a nice, moist interior.

5. Bring the Turkey to Room Temperature First.

Don’t move your bird straight from the fridge to the oven. Let it sit out for two to three hours first. Doing this, according to Aaron London of Al’s Place in San Francisco, lets the bones adjust to room temperature so that when roasted, it "allows the bones to hold heat like little cinder blocks, cooking the turkey from the inside out."

6. Cut Up Your Turkey Before Cooking.

This might sound like sacrilege to traditional cooks and turkey lovers. But chefs insist it’s the only way to cook a full-size bird through and through without drying out the meat. Chef Marc Murphy, owner of Landmarc restaurants in New York, told the Times he roasts the breast and the legs separately, while chef R.B. Quinn prefers to cut his turkeys in half before cooking them. Bobby Flay, meanwhile, strikes a balance: "I roast the meat until the breasts are done, and then cut off the legs and thighs. The breasts can rest, and you can cook off the legs in the drippings left in the pan."

7. Cook the Stuffing on the Side of the Turkey.

A traditional stuffing side dish for Thanksgiving in a baking pan
VeselovaElena/iStock via Getty Images

Many chefs these days advise against cooking stuffing inside the turkey. The reason? Salmonella. "With the stuffing being in the middle, a lot of blood drips into it and if everything in the middle doesn't come to temperature then you're at risk," chef Charles Gullo told the Chicago Tribune. TV host Alton Brown echoed this advice, and writes that it’s very difficult to bring the stuffing to a safe 165 degrees without overcooking the bird. (You can check out some more tips to prevent food poisoning on Thanksgiving here.)

8. Butter Up That Bird.

No matter if you’ve chosen a dry brine, a wet brine, or no brine at all, turkeys need a helping of butter spread around the outside and under the skin. Thomas Keller, founder of The French Laundry, recommends using clarified butter. "It helps the skin turn extra-crispy without getting scorched," he told Epicurious.

9. Use Two Thermometers.

A quality meat thermometer is a must, chefs say. When you use it, make sure to take the temperature in more than one spot on the bird, checking to see that it’s cooked to at least 165 degrees through and through. Also, says Diane Morgan, author of The New Thanksgiving Table, you should know the temperature of your oven, as a few degrees can make the difference between a well-cooked bird and one that’s over- or under-done.

10. Turn Up the Heat.

If you’ve properly brined your meat, you don't need to worry about high heat sucking the moisture out, chefs say. Keller likes to cook his turkey at a consistent 450 degrees. This allows the bird to cook quickly, and creates a crisp shell of reddish-brown skin. Ruth Reichl, the famed magazine editor and author, seconds this method, but warns that your oven needs to be squeaky clean, otherwise leftover particles could smoke up.

11. Baste Your Turkey—But Don't Overdo It.

Man basting a turkey
Image SourceiStock via Getty Images

Spreading juices over top the turkey would seem to add moisture, no? Not necessarily. According to chef Marc Vogel, basting breaks the caramelized coating that holds moisture in. The more you do it, the more time moisture has to seep out of the turkey. Also, opening the oven releases its heat, and requires several minutes to stabilize afterward. It's not really an either/or prospect, chefs agree. Best to aim somewhere in the middle: Baste every 30 minutes while roasting.

12. Let It Rest.

Allowing a turkey to rest after it’s cooked lets the juices redistribute throughout the meat. Most chefs recommend at least 30 minutes’ rest time. Famed chef and TV personality Gordon Ramsey lets his turkey rest for a couple hours. "It may seem like a long time, but the texture will be improved the longer you leave the turkey to rest," Ramsey told British lifestyle site Good to Know. "Piping hot gravy will restore the heat."

11 Times Mickey Mouse Was Banned

Getty Images
Getty Images

Despite being one of the world’s most recognizable and beloved characters, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Mickey Mouse, who was "born" on November 18, 1928. A number of countries—and even U.S. states—have banned the cartoon rodent at one time or another for reasons both big and small.

1. The Shindig scandal

In 1930, Ohio banned a cartoon called The Shindig because Clarabelle Cow was shown reading Three Weeks by Elinor Glyn, the premier romance novelist of the time. Check it out (at the 1:05 mark above) and let us know if you’re scandalized.

2. Romania's rodent nightmare

With movies on 10-foot screen being a relatively new thing in Romania in 1935, the government decided to ban Mickey Mouse, concerned that children would be terrified of a monstrous rodent.

3. The Barnyard Battle battle of 1929

In 1929, a German censor banned a Mickey Mouse short called “The Barnyard Battle.” The reason? An army of cats wearing pickelhauben, the pointed helmets worn by German military in the 19th and 20th centuries: "The wearing of German military helmets by an army of cats which oppose a militia of mice is offensive to national dignity. Permission to exhibit this production in Germany is refused.”

4. The "miserable ideal" ordeal

The German dislike for Mickey Mouse continued into the mid-1930s, with one German newspaper wondering why such a small and dirty animal would be idolized by children across the world: "Mickey Mouse is the most miserable ideal ever revealed ... Healthy emotions tell every independent young man and every honorable youth that the dirty and filth-covered vermin, the greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom, cannot be the ideal type of animal.” Mickey was originally banned from Nazi Germany, but eventually the mouse's popularity won out.

5. Disney's "demoralizing" cast of characters

Laughing Winnie the Pooh doll
CatLane/iStock via Getty Images

In 2014, Iran's Organization for Supporting Manufacturers and Consumers announced a ban on school supplies and stationery products featuring “demoralizing images,” including that of Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, Sleeping Beauty, and characters from Toy Story.

6. Germany's "Anti-Red" rodent ban

In 1954, East Germany banned Mickey Mouse comics, claiming that Mickey was an “anti-Red rebel.”

7. Disney vs. the Boy King of Yugoslavia

A photograph of King Peter II of Yugoslavia
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In 1937, a Mickey Mouse adventure was so similar to real events in Yugoslavia that the comic strip was banned. State police say the comic strip depicted a “Puritan-like revolt” that was a danger to the “Boy King,” Peter II of Yugoslavia, who was just 14 at the time. A journalist who wrote about the ban was consequently escorted out of the country.

8. The miraculous Mussolini escape

Though Mussolini banned many cartoons and American influences from Italy in 1938, Mickey Mouse flew under the radar. It’s been said that Mussolini’s children were such Mickey Mouse fans that they were able to convince him to keep the rodent around.

9. Not going for "I'm going to Disneyland"

Mickey and his friends were banned from the 1988 Seoul Olympics in a roundabout way. As they do with many major sporting events, including the Super Bowl, Disney had contacted American favorites to win in each event to ask them to say the famous “I’m going to Disneyland!” line if they won. When American swimmer Matt Biondi won the 100-meter freestyle, he dutifully complied with the request. After a complaint from the East Germans, the tape was pulled and given to the International Olympic Committee.

10. The great Seattle liquor store war

In 1993, Mickey was banned from a place he shouldn't have been in the first place: Seattle liquor stores. As a wonderful opening sentence from the Associated Press explained, "Mickey Mouse, the Easter Bunny and teddy bears have no business selling booze, the Washington State Liquor Control Board has decided." A handful of stores had painted Mickey and other characters as part of a promotion. A Disney VP said Mickey was "a nondrinker."

11. An udder humiliation

Let's end with another strike against The Shindig (see #1) and Clarabelle’s bulging udder. Less than a year after The Shindig ban, the Motion Picture Producers and Directors of America announced that they had received a massive number of complaints about the engorged cow udders in various Mickey Mouse cartoons.

From then on, according to a 1931 article in Time magazine, “Cows in Mickey Mouse ... pictures in the future will have small or invisible udders quite unlike the gargantuan organ whose antics of late have shocked some and convulsed others. In a recent picture the udder, besides flying violently to left and right or stretching far out behind when the cow was in motion, heaved with its panting with the cow stood still.”

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