Being a writer I have often wondered exactly how the Witness Protection Program works. In the movies and on TV, witnesses are gathered together and efficiently moved away from friends, jobs, and sometimes even families to new locations. Given new names, they are seemingly provided new jobs and lives where they are securely protected from whatever criminal or criminal group would kill them and their loved ones in revenge for something or to prevent exposure of the criminal’s nefarious activities.
It appears in reality this is not quite the way things work. The U.S. Marshall Service Witness Security Program (WITSEC) was designed in 1970 for rather specific purposes. According to the U.S. Marshals webpage
“The U.S. Marshals Service provides for the security, health and safety of government witnesses, and their immediate dependents, whose lives are in danger as a result of their testimony against drug traffickers, terrorists, organized crime members and other major criminals.” So if you’re hiding from your neighborhood stalker or a former spouse who resents your departure from a bad relationship the Witness Protection Program is probably not going to be available to you. That is unless said stalker or former spouse falls into one of the major crimes categories.
Before being admitted to the program the witness is thoroughly investigated by the U.S. Marshal’s service, the U.S. Attorney’s office, the Department of Justice’s Office of Enforcement Operations, and any local referring agency.
If a witness has agreed to testify in a criminal trial their protection begins immediately. The witness will be guarded 24-hours a day during all pre-trial and trial activities assuring they will survive to testify.
In addition to getting new identities and documentation like social security cards, birth certificates, marriage certificates, driver’s licenses, passports, and any other identification papers witnesses are also given financial assistance. Not only do they receive financial assistance for housing, they also basic living expenses, healthcare, and if needed get job training and employment.
The U.S. Marshal’s Service states on their website that “No Witness Security Program participant following program guidelines has been harmed or killed while under the active protection of the U.S. Marshals Service.” The program reports an 89% conviction rate with over ten thousand criminals being convicted due to the program.
All this sounds wonderful, but is there a down side?
In an interview with CNN, Gerald Shur, who created the program most witnesses who enter the program are not law-abiding citizens. “Ninety-five percent of them are what we call criminals,” he said. “Not everybody is a killer or a member of the Hell’s Angels or the mob, but there are people who are doing business with criminals.”
Who decides where witnesses should be relocated to? The marshals chose the location where witnesses will live. Shur states, “I would say to them, ‘Tell me what’s your favorite place in the U.S.?’ ” Shur said, “and they’d say, ‘I always wanted to go to Hawaii,’ or that they had family in Texas or Florida. And in my mind that’s three places that they are not going. Because when you tell me you want to go to Hawaii, I know you have told all your friends that.” At the same time, administrators work to make that new person exist. Whereas in WITSEC’s ad-hoc early days, marshals would sometimes forge documents themselves, witnesses and their families now get (legally sealed) name changes and receive new social security cards, birth certificates, and drivers licenses. (The relevant government agencies often produce the documents grudgingly.) The program also works with doctors and school administrators to transfer medical records and report cards; Shur recounts that he refused several requests to improve a child’s grades. “One woman, Jackee Taylor (née Jacqueline Crouch), who was 7 when her family entered the program in 1981, later remembered spending hours practicing writing her new name while waiting to be placed.”
The program is completely voluntary so basically is a witness decides to take his chances and not be relocated he is on his own. Witnesses can also return to their true identities if they choose although this is strongly discouraged. Shur recalled two instances when witnesses refused protection. “(One witness) went back to his home and turned the doorknob and it blew up. And there was another witness — we tried to talk her into it. She refused and she was murdered.”
Do criminals who are placed in Witness Protection continue to engage in criminal activities? A former motorcycle gang member who murdered a woman found employment after being relocated. “When Gerald Shur asked staff psychologists if they could predict whether a relocated witness would resume violent behavior, they responded as follows: ‘There remains no consistent, reliable means by which to accurately predict an individual’s future behavior.”
A less successful relocation is the case of Marion Pruett. Pruett had been imprisoned for bank robbery when he agreed to testify against a high ranking criminal who had murdered his cellmate. Given the name of Charles (Sonny) Pearson he was placed in the program in 1979.He killed his wife Pamela in New Mexico in March of 1981. He then went on a crime spree robbing places to support an expensive cocaine habit. While robbing a bank in Jackson, Mississippi he killed Peggy Lowe. He proceeded to Arkansas where he murdered a convenience store clerk, then on to Colorado where he killed two more convenience store clerks. He denied the killing of his wife who was beaten to death before being set on fire.” Following standard policy, officials at WITSEC did not alert law enforcement to the presence of a former criminal and protected witness, nor did they reveal Pruett’s identity to local sheriffs after the discovery of Pruett’s wife’s body” Needless to say New Mexico law enforcement officials were furious about the concealment of Pearson’s (Pruett’s) true identity. Pruett was executed by lethal injection at 8:04 PM and pronounced dead at 8:09 PM. Pruett was the 19th person executed by Arkansas since Furman v. Georgia.
“As of July 2014, the Inspector General found that a total of 58 sex offenders at one point were in the Witness Security Program, including 10 individuals who were convicted of sex offenses prior to admittance to the program, 10 individuals who were convicted of a sex offense while in the program, and 38 individuals who were convicted of a sex offense after being terminated from the program. The report notes that many local law enforcement agencies were not notified when sex offenders in the Witness Security Program were relocated to their communities and some were not registered as sex offenders.” http://judiciary.house.gov/index.cfm/press-releases?id=5465E851-067A-4F13-86FF-2DB2F40949DF
This raises the question of how many murders, bank robbers, and sexual predators may be living in communities across the US under the protection of the Witness Protection Program. They reside in cities and towns alongside unknowing families and law enforcement.” So, government employees devote themselves to rehabilitating people who (95% of the time) are former criminals, often with very ugly pasts.”Further reports state “a recent study from the Department of Justice that found that 82% of relocated witnesses do not commit another crime”.
Sometimes the problems arising from relocation are more financial. In 1978 Aladena Jimmy Fratianno known as “The Weasel” turned informant against the Los Angeles crime syndicate of which he was the acting head. Over the next ten years he was paid almost a million dollars!
So is the Witness Protection Program worth the money put into it? Successful on one hand it has had its shortcomings. There is always the question of whether or not criminals in the program return to some type of illegal activity without the awareness of either the program administrators or local law enforcement.
“The US has lost track of two known or suspected terrorists given identities under the federal witness protection program, according to a Justice Department audit that indicated the program was so poorly monitored the department didn’t even know how many such individuals were in it” according to an article in The Christian Science Monitor.
Witnesses are usually provided yearly subsistence payments of $60,000. This doesn’t seem like a large amount unless you consider that some of these wealthy criminals are permitted to keep their ill gotten riches. In 1991 a Canadian drug dealer, Robert Brook, was permitted to keep one million in assets, including expensive cars and a Laguna Beach home in exchange for testifying against Daniel James Fowlie, the head of a wide spread and lucrative marijuana operation based in Orange County, California. When he was questioned, “Brook said the government allowed him to keep $1 million in assets from drug profits, including a $550,000 Laguna Beach home, two Mercedes sedans, a BMW, and property and other assets in Canada. In addition, charges of money laundering against his wife were never filed.” Adding insult to injury Brook was paid $19,000. In relocation expenses from the US government!
The questions remain are there additional “witnesses” who have gone missing in the program? Are there other hidden witnesses who continue to engage in criminal activity while being “protected” by the government? Are there protected witnesses living high on the hog at government expense?
However this program is so well protected that even government agencies don’t have access to the list of witnesses in protection. The U.S. Marshal’s Service is so understaffed in this area that even they can’t keep up with their witnesses. You have to wonder, who is living next door to you?