Questions Answered About The Witness Protection Program

The United States Witness Protection Program (WITSEC) is managed by the United States Department of Justice and operated by the United States Marshals Service. Their job is to ensure the protection of threatened witnesses before, during, and after they testify at trial. Originally created in the mid-1960s by Gerald Shur as the Federal Witness Protection Program, it eventually grew into what it is today. As of 2019, more than 18,600 witnesses and family members have been protected by the U.S. Marshals since 1971. Ever wonder what the Witness Protection Program actually is and how it works? You’ve come to the right place.

Its Origins Can Be Traced Back To The Italian Mafia

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Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

The beginnings of the Witness Protection program can be traced back to the signing of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970. The act was signed by President Richard Nixon and was aimed at the Italian Mafia and other organized crime syndicates.

The law established procedures for witnesses including perjury, witness protection, witness self-incrimination, and recalcitrant witness. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act or RICO was also included in the Organized Crime Control Act, leading to extended criminal penalties for laws broken while involved with a criminal organization.

WITSEC Has An Orientation

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RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images
RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images

In the years following the inception of WITSEC, the program had a lot of issues regarding educating those enrolled and what they should be expecting to happen. In some cases, witnesses were forced to wait months for new birth certificates and social security numbers, valuable time that could have been spent productively.

Noticing there were issues, in 1988, Marshals expedited the process by establishing a clearinghouse. Located in Washington D.C., The WITSEC Safesite and Orientation Center could house up to six families at once without the chance of them seeing each other. There, they would be informed in great detail about the process, trained, and established in a new location in a matter of weeks.

Most People In The Program Are Criminals

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DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images
DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images

While we may see innocent people forced into the Witness Protection Program, that’s actually incredibly rare in real life. It’s estimated that less than five percent of people involved with the program are totally innocent of any crime. For the most part, many are career criminals looking for a way out of the lifestyle and to be absolved of their charges and protected.

Furthermore, the rate of recidivism among those in WITSEC is assumed to be anywhere between 10 and 20 percent. Although local law enforcement isn’t informed when a criminal has been relocated to their jurisdiction, many fear these protected witnesses will bring problems along with them.

Witnesses Have Some Say In Their Relocating

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Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Early on in the WITSEC process, the program’s founder, General Shur says he asks the witness their three favorite places in the United States. Those three places are then immediately ruled out as potential places to relocate since they’ve most likely spoken to others about it.

Although the U.S. Marshals ultimately decide where to relocate the witness, they are allowed to put their two cents in at times. Then, once a location is decided upon, it is disclosed with only the witness, their family, and a few Marshals knowing where it is.

The Money Eventually Runs Dry

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Liu Jie/Xinhua via Getty Images
Liu Jie/Xinhua via Getty Images

Usually, WITSEC tends to pay for the witnesses housing in their new location. They also provide them with furnishings, and a form of salary, depending on the cost of living in the area, as well as the size of a family. It’s assumed that most witnesses receive around $60,000 from the government before they are expected to have jobs and become self-reliant within six months.

At the peak of the Witness Protection Program, it is assumed that the Justice Department had paid out more than $1 million to witnesses that were testifying over extended periods of time.

You Have To Follow The Rules

Picture of Henry Hill
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Orjan F. Ellingvag/Corbis via Getty Images

One of the biggest and most important rules of WITSEC is that you can literally never go back home again. This means breaking all ties with your family and friends, starting completely fresh. You also can’t talk to the media, use social media, and definitely can’t break any laws.

Criminal Henry Hill entered Witness Protection with his family in 1980, yet had to be relocated to over 10 different cities for continuously breaking the rules. On one occasion, while under the influence of drugs and alcohol, he revealed his true identity to his neighbors. This was the final straw and he was not relocated but kicked out of the program in 1990.

They Sometimes Keep Their First Names

Picture of General Gerald Shur
Greg Whitesell/Getty Images
Greg Whitesell/Getty Images

General Shur, who ran the program for 25 years continued as a consultant after retiring from the Department of Justice. One thing that he disclosed about the program is that relocated witnesses don’t always receive completely different or unfamiliar names.

To aid them in becoming this new person, they are usually allowed to have the same first name and even keep their original initials. This helps make the witness appear more natural when responding to their name or even writing it down. Children in the program are encouraged to practice writing it as often as possible.

You Can’t Let Your New Spouse Know About Your Past

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Matthias Balk/picture alliance via Getty Images
Matthias Balk/picture alliance via Getty Images

If you happen to get married while in the program, it could present some challenges, considering that you’re expected to lie to your new spouse about your past life. WITSEC members are instructed to keep their former lives a secret in case the relationship turns sour and their secret is later revealed after spite.

For example, when mobster Henry Hill married Sherry Anders in 1981, Anders thought that his name was Martin Lewis and had no idea that he was no stranger to crime or dead bodies. The two eventually split up.

Some Parents Have Asked For Their Child’s Grades To Be Changed

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Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

When someone and their families qualify for the WITSEC, they are distributed new driver’s licenses, social security numbers, birth certificates, and anything else that would be used to solidify your new identity. If they have children, their school records will need to be modified so educators will be able to see past grades without the ability to track where they originally came from.

So, when people learned that their children’s school grades would be slightly modified, a few asked them to give their child better grades than they initially had. Unsurprisingly, General Shur refused.

Criminals Have Utilized Witness Protection For Further Criminal Activity

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Valery SharifulinTASS via Getty Images
Valery SharifulinTASS via Getty Images

Although WITSEC may help past criminals escape their previous life, that doesn’t mean that it rehabilitates them from their criminal ways. For the most part, most career criminals never had a typical full-time job or followed the rules of society, leading many of them to fall back into their criminal ways.

On some occasions, those protected take advantage of WITSEC, especially their new identity. One person used their new identity to rack up a decent amount of debt, later telling the Marshals they had been discovered by someone who wanted them dead. This then allowed them to receive another identity, avoiding the debt, and receiving more money from the government.

There Used To Be Some Serious Benefits

Photo of Jimmy Fratianno
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Back during its early years in the 1970s and 80s, WITSEC was incredibly successful in bringing down some of the biggest names in the mafia. Even some of the mafia’s most prominent members were testifying against their bosses with the reassurance that they’d be able to start over fresh.

During that time, the government wanted to continue to encourage people to participate so they allowed the witnesses some extravagant. spending. For example, former hitman Jimmy Fratianno convinced the United States government to pay for his wife’s breast implants, facelift, and ental work.

It Creates Problems With Child Custody

Divorce papers
Lewis Whyld/PA Images via Getty Images
Lewis Whyld/PA Images via Getty Images

Of course, uprooting your life can lead to numerous problems, especially if you become divorced and have children. One particular case that influenced the WITSEC protocol involved Thomas Leonhard in the 1970s. After his ex-wife became married to a protected witness, Leonhard, who originally had visitation rights to his daughter, lost that privilege.

Leonhard then filed and was granted full custody, yet WITSEC officials still refused to disclose his daughter’s location. The issue eventually led to an amendment in 1984 to WITSEC protocol, which takes joint custody of children into account during relocation.

Numerous States Have Their Own Programs

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Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

WITSEC is a federal program that fights against major criminal enterprises that pose a legitimate threat to a witnesse’s life. However, for lesser threats, such as people who have witnessed a gang killing or other forms of street crimes, it’s unlikely that the federal government will offer them protection.

Yet some states have programs that offer relocation almost immediately after the trial. An example of this is Project Safeguard in Detroit, which provides lodging and basic needs through private funding.

There Can Be Perks In Prison

Interior of a prison
Giles Clarke/Getty Images
Giles Clarke/Getty Images

While WITSEC can suspend the prison sentences from witnesses who cooperate, some of them still have to end up serving prison time. To encourage inmates to cooperate with WITSEC, the program can offer perks in prison that few other inmates will come close to ever seeing.

In 1996, the Pittsburgh Gazette revealed that some protected witnesses serving time were gifted with fancy meals such as lobster and roasted pigs, and even unlimited phone calls. Unsurprisingly, some of these prisoners used to latter privilege to continue their criminal lifestyle.

You Can Leave At Your Own Risk

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Amazingly, out of all the people placed in Witness Protection, not a single person who followed the rules has been harmed or killed since the program’s inception. Of course, not all of the people in the program take it seriously and either deliberately break the rules or leave on their own accord.

Although you’re not legally bound to stay in the WITSEC, it’s certainly the smartest move in terms of self-preservation. For example, one man in the program, Daniel LaPolla, didn’t heed WITSEC’s warning about returning home for a funeral where he met his fate when his former home was rigged to blow up.

Sneaking Into Trial

Witness wearing a mask
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

The purpose of the Witness Protection program is to keep witnesses safe before and after they testify at trial. Still, that leaves them at risk when they’re on their way both to and from the trial.

So, in order to keep them as safe and possible, the U.S. Marshall comes up with creative ways to sneak them into the courthouse. Some of the things they have done in the past are use mail trucks, helicopters, body doubles, and even fishing boats. Their goal is to be as unpredictable as possible.

Other Countries Are Following In Suit

Shaking Hands
JOEL NITO/AFP/Getty Images
JOEL NITO/AFP/Getty Images

Although established in the United States, the premise for the Witness Protection Program has begun to circulate throughout the world. Australia, a country first made-up of criminals began their program in 1983, and much like the United States, have regional programs as well.

In addition, Germany established on in the 80s as well and Hong Kong, China in the 90s. Impressively, Columbia has a three-program system in their constitution which aids in the well-being of witnesses. Today, more and more countries are looking into programs to help protect witnesses while taking down major crime operations.

It All Started With Joseph Valachi

Valachi being sworn in
Bettmann/CORBIS/Bettmann Archive
Bettmann/CORBIS/Bettmann Archive

Prior to the establishment of the Witness Protection Program, it was almost impossible to get mafia members to speak against their leaders in court. This is because to do so was a death sentence. However, in 1963, Joseph Valachi became the first Italian-American Mafia member to testify in front of a congressional committee about how the mafia worked.

During the committee, he was guarded by 200 U.S. Marshals after it was overheard that there was a bounty of $100,000 on his head. He then spent the rest of his life in protective custody, afraid to even eat food that he didn’t prepare himself.

There’s A Qualification Process

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If you think that you can just come running to WITSEC the moment you think you’re in trouble, you’re sadly mistaken. There are numerous different qualifications an individual must meet in order to be accepted into the program. For starters, your testimony must be an essential part of a large case as well as one that would definitely put you and your family’s life at risk.

You also need to be extremely credible, because if you’re not, you’re not worth the time, money, or resources used to put you through the program. Finally, you’re at the mercy of the U.S. Attorney General’s office who has the final say whether you’re eligible or not.

There’s A Victim’s Compensation Fund

Department of Justice sign
Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Because the government is responsible for relocating a criminal witness into a new community, if that protected person commits a crime against you, it’s possible you may qualify for compensation.

You could be paid out of the Victims Compensation Fund, which is money given to the victims of criminal witnesses for things such as hospital bills or funeral expenses. Since you’ll never know if a criminal is under the Witness Protection Program, it’s up to you to seek restitution. Although it’s a shot in the dark, sometimes it does work out.