What Actually Happens in Witness Protection – Seven suitcases and 2 hours, that’s all your family has. Your favorite rock band t-shirt. That stuffed bear you won at a carnival long ago. You can keep those. The baseball jersey you had on when you hit the game winning home run, you can’t take it with you. It has your last name stitched across the back.
The last name that soon will no longer be yours. Seven suitcases is all your family may take. Nothing large, nothing with your name, no year books, no phones. The men with guns are polite, but firm and efficient as they usher your family into the back of a van with blacked out windows. They will take you to the airport and soon you’ll be on your way to your new life.
As you climb into the van, you turn back for a final look back at the home you’ve lived in your whole life. A life that will soon fade from existence, as if you never lived. Under the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, the U.S. Federal Witness Protection Program, also known as the Witness Security or WITSEC Program was formally created.
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It’s main purpose was to protect witnesses and informants planning to testify against perpetrators of organized crime such as the Mafia. Previously, witness protection had been instituted under the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 to protect people testifying against members of the Klan. Also earlier in the 20th century, the Federal Bureau of Investigation or FBI occasionally concocted new identities to protect witnesses.
Today, people go into WITSEC for a variety of reasons, with drugs trafficking accounting for the majority of cases. Many other countries including the United Kingdom, Israel and Ukraine have a witness protection programs with varying degrees of success. Several US states including California, Illinois and New York also have programs.
However today we’re focused specifically on the U. S. Federal Witness Protection Program and how it works for non incarcerated participants. How do you get into witness protection? What happens with your old identity? What happens when witness protection ends? The goal of WITSEC is to ‘provide for the security, safety and health of government witnesses and their authorized family members, whose lives are in danger as a result of their cooperation with the U.S. government’.
The program is managed by three organizations: The United States Marshals Service which is responsible for for non-incarcerated program participants. The Federal Bureau of Prisons or BOP which maintains custody of incarcerated witnesses. The third organization overseeing WITSEC is the U.S. Department of Justice: Office of Enforcement Operations or the OEO which authorizes and admits endangered witnesses into the program.
The first step of entry into the program is that the authorities determine how crucial a witness’s testimony is to building a federal case. Nearly as important is evaluating how dependable and credible the witness is. 95 percent of witnesses admitted into WITSEC are involved in crime. Very rarely does an ordinary citizen witness a crime and is placed in the program as a result.
If the witness’s testimony is deemed vital to prosecution proceedings and valid threats against the witness exist, a state or federal law enforcement agency submits a request for protection. A WITSEC application is then submitted to the OEO detailing the witness’s testimony,threats and risk. At this time, depending on the situation, the witness may be receiving protection from a local law enforcement agency or may have been moved to a safe house.
The OEO has the Marshal Service do a preliminary interview with the witness. The prosecutor or requesting law enforcement agency may also be interviewed. Sometimes witnesses are interviewed multiple times by investigators, along with psychologists. The psychologist asks very personal questions such as does the witness have a history of suicide attempts or extreme violence?
If the witness is half of a couple or has children and the family is going to be relocated, the interviews may delve into intimate details of the couple’s relationship and the family’s life. The Marshal service attempts to determine if the witness poses a risk to themselves, their family or future community.
The interviews check to see if there are extenuating circumstances such as drug or alcohol addition which may make is hard to start a new life. A report, including psychologist notes is generated for the EOE. Staff at the EOE assess the information and make a recommendation. The US Attorney General makes the final authorization to enroll a witness into WITSEC.
If a witness is granted admission, the OEO notifies the requesting agency’s headquarters and the Marshal service. Marshals visit the witness, noting the number of adults and children and assessing their needs such as if anyone has a medical condition that must be considered during the relocation process.
The marshals explain the WITSEC program in further detail to the witness and family members. All must sign a Memorandum of Understanding, verifying they understand the rules of the program. Sometimes additional conditions are required to be admitted such as the witness receiving addiction counseling and agreeing to undergo random drug tests.
At this time, the enrollees are moved from their current location to a temporary secure location or are directly transported to the WITSEC Safe site and Orientation Center in Washington, DC. Sometimes the witness and family are moved suddenly, sometimes they are warned and are able to say goodbye to trusted relatives.
Sometimes the enrollees are able to pack clothing and small items that do not offer clues to what will become their former identities. All documents that identify program participants such as social security cards or drivers licenses are turned over to the marshals are this time. Some witnesses testify before heading into WITSEC, while others enter the program and then protected by Marshals, return to testify; it varies according to the circumstances of each case.
Once entering the program, the Marshals Service provides round the clock protection when the witness is in high-threat area, including pre-trial proceedings and court appearances. New enrollees to WITSEC are flown to Washington, DC. The Marshal Service has its own air fleet, making it easy to surreptitiously transport witnesses across the US.
One they arrive in Washington, the participants are driven to the WITSEC Safe site and Orientation Center in armored vehicles with blacked-out windows and internal black out curtains. Not only can the witnesses not be seen, they don’t know where they’re going either. Earlier in the history of WITSEC, enrolling and educating participants into the program was more haphazard.
In some cases, there was a lot of confusion and witnesses waited for months for new official documents such as birth certificates. The Orientation Center opened in 1988 to help to streamline the process. Once arriving at the center, participants exit their vehicle to find themselves in a windowless, featureless garage, they never see the outside of the compound.
The center is described as a ‘secure area within a secure area’ consisting of a maze of buildings enclosed behind a physical barrier with the outer perimeter patrolled 24 hours a day by guards. Not only is the compound built to withstand a bomb blast, but the grounds and electronic network of the facility is constantly monitored by electronic surveillance, including electronic anti-intrusion systems.
A security team uses sophisticated communication equipment and closed-circuit cameras to direct the movements of all personnel and witnesses within the center’s grounds. No participants will ever see other enrollees for the duration of their stay at the compound. Participants stay in furnished apartments with exterior courtyards surrounded by high concrete walls.
They are not allowed to leave their living quarters unescorted. The WITSEC Safesite and Orientation Center can house up to six families at a time. At the Orientation Center enrollees undergo medical and dental exams. Psychological exams and counseling are also given, as well as vocational inventories.
Participants are intensively interviewed regarding their background, where they’ve previously lived, visited and where relatives live. With the help of staff, participants create a new identity, complete with new background, including a family tree that goes back to new grandparents. Based on interview and test results, enrollees are assigned a special U.S. Marshal known as a Witness Inspector who oversees a particular region of the US.
For the rest of their lives or until they are assigned a different contact, the Witness Inspector is their primary point of contact for the program. During their time at the orientation center, participants chosen a new last name; it must be ethnically compatible and not tied to the witness in any fashion.
Participants are advised to keep their first name, but may choose a new name if they so desire. They are encouraged to choose a last name that starts with the same letter as their former last name. These choices help to limit participant’s mistakes in the future. Parents are especially encouraged to keep their child’s first name.
WITEC will not allow participants to choose the name of a celebrity for their new name. Upon decision, staff begins calling participants by their new names. Children undergo training in spelling, rehearsing and learning to write their new name. Once chosen, names are legally changed via court approval and the participants are supplied with documents for their new identity.
All the identification provided to participants is officially backstopped with a legal paper trail. School records, transcripts and employment histories are also created under the participant’s new identities. WITSEC uses front companies and also has agreements with legitimate companies to help provide realistic employment histories.
However, the program doesn’t provide fake resumes, references or certifications. So if a witness hopes to become Chris Hemsworth, heart surgeon, it’s not happening. The participants are assigned a location to move to in their Witness Inspector’s region. Once assigned, the participants study and familiarize themselves with their new hometown.
After the participants complete orientation, they are transported to their new location and situated in temporary housing. The Witness Inspector helps the participants settle into their new town, assisting with finding permanent housing, enrolling children in school, finding doctors, dentists and even houses of worship.
WITSEC pays for witness housing, new furnishings, and a temporary “salary” based on the family size and cost of living in the new area. Participants are supposed to get jobs and become self-supporting within six months. WITSEC may also back or arrange loans to help participants purchase a used car. The participants whom previously might be used to easy money may receive budget counseling and are taught how to pay bills.
The first few months of relocation tend to be the roughest. Participants are often homesick and lonely. Former criminals turned witnesses are used to spending time in the street or with their gang. Suddenly they are forced to spend a lot of time with their spouse and kids. It can be an emotional pressure cooker situation.
Participants can receive mail from trusted relatives via secure mail-forwarding channels. However since mail can be incriminating; once read, it must be turned over to WITSEC. Also, participants are allowed to call family through secure telephone hookups. In addition to their Witness inspector periodically checking in, participants also have a 24/7 number to call for emergencies.
If the witness has to give testimony, the Marshals service must be notified at least 10 days in advance so they can come up with a plan to securely deliver the witness for court proceedings. Previously witnesses have been transported to testify in mail trucks, helicopters and even fishing boats to thwart assasination attempts.
At trial, even witnesses no longer in WITSEC are given protection if they are testifying in cases for which the witness originally entered the program. WITSEC is voluntary, life long and the participants may leave at any time they wish, although the Marshals do not suggest doing so. As of 2019, about 18,900 witnesses and family members have been relocated since the program’s inception.
WITSEC claims that “no Witness Security Program participant, following program guidelines, has been harmed or killed”. About 30 witnesses who didn’t follow rules or left the program have been murdered. WITSEC is not without its critics. The program is expensive to run, the government spends undisclosed millions annually to keep the program going.
However, trials involving WITSEC participant testimony have an 89 percent conviction rate. Information regarding witnesses is provided on a need to know basis. Due to layers of security even within the program, only a few people may know a participant’s original identity. Local and state authorities are not notified of the criminal witness who may even be murderers or pedophiles relocated to their area.
Around 17 percent of WITSEC participants who have committed a crime will re offend. However, that’s a far lower number than compared to parolees who have a recidivism of 41 percent. Though WITSEC isn’t a rehabilitation program, the help and counseling received often helps witnesses turn their lives around. However participants frequently struggle with internal conflicts and identity crises.
They have trouble making friends, starting and sustaining new romantic relationships. Ironically, the witness’s children and family members can fare worse than the witness themselves, because the witnesses are used to extensive lying in their criminal background. Children in the program seem to suffer the most, especially if they are old enough to understand the radical life change the family has undergone.
In some cases, children who grew up in the program have tried to return to their original identity as adults and have been stuck in limbo with identity documents. The WITSEC continues to adjust the system after many mistakes and mishaps. In the early days the program didn’t provide counseling and paid for plastic surgeries, including breast implants for a mobster’s wife.
Some participants used their new identity to run up significant debt, then told Marshals they’d been spotted by an enemy and feared retribution. The program would change their identity and location for a second time, allowing the witness to successfully flee creditors and collect more cost-of-living money from WITSEC.
Now witnesses must pay off debts before entering the program and are monitored to ensure they don’t rack up new debt. WITSEC no longer pays for plastic surgery for relocating witnesses, but will facilitate it for those who can afford to pay for it themselves. Due to a landmark case in the 1970s, in 1984 an amendment was made to WITSEC protocol that joint custody agreements must be taken into account when relocating children.
In 1967 Tom Leonhard had visitation rights to his 3 young children. A year earlier, Tom’s wife Rochelle had divorced him to marry a Mafia informant named Paddy Calabrese. The family disappeared; no one told Leonhard that his ex-wife and children had left Buffalo, New York, gone into witness protection and were now living a new life in Reno, Nevada. For the next several years Leonhard fought to see his children.
Even when he was granted full custody in New York state court, WITSEC refused to produce the children on grounds that their new location and identity would be compromised. The US Supreme court declined to review the case. Otherwise than confirming that the kids were fine and good health via a single letter, Rochelle refused to correspond with her ex husband.
In 1975 after Rochelle and Cabrese separated, she had a change of heart and got in contact with Leonhard. Soon after Leonhard flew to Reno to see his kids for the first time in 8 years. He was heart broken to see that his kids were now teens and realized how much time he had lost. Later Leonhard sued the government for millions of dollars saying that he was prevented from raising his children.
While the case was dismissed, it caused the WITSEC to alter procedure. Now, a non WITSEC parent with visitation rights must agree to have the child relocated. They have the right to visit the child, although the visit must be planned through WITSEC. If the parent refuses the program for their child and wins full custody, the child will not be allowed to remain in their new identity.
In the current digital age, WITSEC and its participants are facing new challenges as companies and individuals mount extensive background checks. In a few cases, grandchildren of witnesses attempting to join defense or intelligence agencies post 911 have run into trouble when the CIA checks into the family’s background. The WITSEC is working on ways to limit these types of issues as they will continue to become more prevalent in the future.
How do you think you would fare in the Witness Protection program? Let us know in the comments!