Did you know that the Witness Protection
Program used to provide plastic surgery for witnesses? It sounds bizarre, but it’s
true. Hi, I’m Erin McCarthy, editor-in-chief of Mental Floss.com. To
entice mobster Aladena Frattiano to testify in the late 1970s, Witness
Protection paid for his wife’s surgery, including breast implants and a facelift.
One unnamed participant was given a psychologist-suggested penis surgery, not to disguise his identity but because he was depressed
and needed a self-esteem boost in order to testify. Seriously. Anyway, as of the
late 90s it became the policy to not provide plastic surgery for witnesses.
They would help witnesses get it but government money would not be used. And that’s just the first of many facts about the Witness Protection Program
that I’m going to share with you today. Here’s an obvious fact: the Witness
Security Program, or WITSEC, is pretty mysterious. It’s run not by the FBI but
by the US Marshal Service, and in 2013 their then associate director for
operations, David Harlow, explained, quote, “No one knows what we do to protect
witnesses and it’s good for us.” Okay, so what do we know about the Witness
Protection Program? We know that it began as a result of the Organized Crime
Control Act of 1970, which in part said that the government would protect
witnesses. At the time members of the Mafia were known to kill witnesses in
advance of, or afte,r they testified. Their families were also in danger. Gerald Shur,
who worked for the Justice Department at the time, founded WITSEC. He was the head
of the witness security program for around 25 years and was instrumental in
turning it into what it is today. He’s also how we know a lot of what we
do know about the mysterious program. He co-wrote a book titled WITSEC: Inside The
Federal Witness Protection Program. As of 2019, between witnesses and their
families, around 18 thousand nine hundred and fourteen people have been moved
thanks to the program. The current cost of keeping WITSEC running is about 10
million dollars a year and, according to the government officials in charge of
the program, WITSEC has a 100% success rate, meaning witnesses who have remained
in it and followed all the rules have not been harmed as a result of
testifying. There were a few protected witnesses before the program actually
began, including Joe Valachi, who was sort of an inspiration for the program. In
1963 Valachi turned in criminals he knew from his participation in the Mafia in
exchange for safety in prison. Government officials realized that offering
protection was an effective way to convince criminals and witnesses to come
forward, and they officially started WITSEC around 1970. Another early witness was Joseph the animal Barboza, a murderer who testified against the mob
in the late 1960s. Barboza was sent to California with a new identity.
Unfortunately, he may have killed again. Eventually he was shot, probably by the
people he’d testified against. So, you know, not a rousing success. Oh God.
That’s that’s an excellent question. Erin the Cat Lady McCarthy…Yeah. The
fact that Valachi and Barboza were criminals wasn’t unusual. According to
Gerald Shur, about 95% of the witnesses in WITSEC are criminals in their own
right. Around 10 to 20 percent of them will go on to reoffend. Because of that it’s a risky and controversial program, but the Justice Department notes the upside. It
claims that trials with witnesses in WITSEC testifying have an 89 percent
conviction rate. According to Shur, people hoping to enter Witness Protection have
to sign a list of rules. One of the rules is a pledge to, in his words, quote, “be a
good person and live a normal life.” And of course they wouldn’t be put into
WITSEC unless being a witness in their particular case would put them at risk.
The first thing that a witness in the program will experience is orientation.
There’s a WITSEC safe-site and orientation center in the Washington, DC
area, where six separate families can stay without coming into contact with
each other. Family members will go through medical, dental and psychological
exams. Each adult is also interviewed about their job skills so they can be
placed in a new location with a job that makes sense. So in real life, lounge
singer Deloris van Cartier probably wouldn’t have been placed in a convent.
And of course a protected witness needs a new name, but taking a new first name
is optional. Sometimes it’s easier for a person to keep their first name so they
always answer when they’re called and they don’t have to fully change their
signature. They can choose their new last name, but it must 1) be unrelated to
their life—so no family members’ maiden names—and 2) make sense ethnically. Then witnesses get a bunch of new documents like birth certificates and driver’s
licenses, plus new social security numbers and legalized name changes. Kids get school records copied in their new name, and though some parents wanted
those records subtly improved, Shur refused. The program ensures that
furnished houses, schools and even religious institutions are in place in
the locations where people get sent. Ghey also get money. In Shur’s day they based
the amount of money on the cost of living in the new area. For about six
months, witnesses received a stipend. As for where they’re sent. it’s nowhere
they want to go…literally. Shur would ask a witness to list places where they’d
like to go and then send them elsewhere. If they were telling Shur that they
wanted to go there he found it safe to assume that they told other people that,
too. But it was also a priority to send them somewhere that they wouldn’t feel like a total fish out of water, so people from
cities were sent to cities and people from small towns were sent to small
towns. Send me the badlands, so I can be just like Teddy Roosevelt. Shur also has
a story of a witness requesting for his girlfriend to enter the program with him
but for his wife to be left behind because he knew that she would be
murdered if she didn’t come with him. In Shur’s words, quote, “The object was to
have me become the substitute for his divorce court. I wasn’t about to do that.”
WITSEC participants are allowed to talk to the family that they’ve had to leave
behind. There’s a secure mail program but they can’t keep the letters after
they’ve read them. The marshals take them away. They can also make phone calls to
their families via secure lines that the program sets up for them. Each witness is
assigned a U.S. marshal. If they’re in a dangerous situation, like a court
appearance, they’re being monitored 24/7 by the marshal. But once they’re just
living in their new home with their new identity, the witness only needs to be in
touch with her marshal once a year. Not everyone is in the traditional version
of the program. As of 2010 there were about 500 prisoners who were in WITSEC.
There isn’t much information on how this works, but a person would at least
receive a name change so that they’re no longer able to be easily located. In the
late 90s it was discovered that certain witnesses like this had received special
meals and phone call privileges in exchange for testifying.
Despite the program’s excellent track record there is at least one documented
case of witnesses being identified in their new lives…by one another. An audit
published in 2005 revealed that two witnesses who were acquainted before
entering WITSEC ran into each other at a convenience store. One of the witnesses
was relocated. A more high-profile story of a case gone wrong is that of Thomas
Leonard. He was divorced from his ex-wife but had visitation rights to see his
children. Then his ex married a mafia informant, Pascal Calabrese. The
informant, the wife and her children were moved out of Buffalo, New York in 1967.
Leonard was unable to get in touch with his children until 1975. He sued the US
government, which led to a change in WITSEC. Now a parent with visitation
rights has to approve their child’s participation. I mentioned earlier that
no one has been physically harmed for being in WITSEC, but some have broken the
strict rules set for them, which has predictably caused problems. Like Daniel
LaPolla, who in the 1970s returned to Connecticut to go to a funeral. He decided
to pop by his old house, which had been booby-trapped. When he unlocked the door
a bomb went off and he was killed. Finally, Henry Hill—who you might know
from the movie Goodfellas—was a protected witness in the 1980s. His wife
and two kids were also in WITSEC and they all lived in Redmond, Washington
together. But that didn’t stop Hill from getting married under his new identity.
He moved in with his new wife, Sherry Anders, and unsurprisingly his other wife,
Karen, found out. The two women seemingly put an end to the madness by confronting
Henry together, but then Sherry had a change of heart and wouldn’t end her
marriage to him. Eventually WITSEC removed the entire Hill family from the
program because they were causing too much chaos. Our next episode is about
weird old jobs from a hundred years ago and we want to try something new. Comment
below with your favorite antiquated job from the early 1900s. We’ll take our
favorite suggestion (that pass this fact check) and incorporate it into the video.
That’ll be up on August 21st. Make sure to subscribe here so you don’t miss it.
We’ll see you then!