The mobsters and terrorists next door

The founder of the federal witness protection program talks about hiding killers in the suburbs and why even al-Qaida members can become law-abiding citizens.

Published February 28, 2002 9:46PM (EST)

Since 1967, when Gerald Shur created the federal Witness Security Program, or WITSEC, almost 7,500 witnesses and their 14,000 family members have been relocated in the United States. That means that some of those 21,500 people -- former Mob hit men, Colombian drug gangsters, international terrorists, and their families (and lovers) -- might be shopping, getting takeout and attending PTA meetings in a quiet suburb near you. And, of course, the viability of WITSEC demands that you never know about their criminal past.

Shur retired from the U.S. Department of Justice's Organized Crime and Racketeering Section in 1994. During his 30-year tenure, he oversaw WITSEC's protection of 6,146 witnesses and their dependents. Shur offered freedom and anonymity to every Mafia witness since the 1960s (like Henry Hill of "Goodfellas" fame), members of Pablo Escobar's notorious Medellín cartel and Islamist terrorists involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in exchange for their testimony.

Not surprisingly, Shur came under fire for championing a program that lets seasoned criminals loose in society, even though 82 percent of them never commit another crime. For the most part, these criticisms of WITSEC are well documented in "WITSEC: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program," Shur and journalist Pete Earley's collaborative account -- part memoir, part investigative history -- of Shur's years commanding the program. It's an entertaining and informative book, calibrating all the thrills of the criminal underworld with the finer frustrations of coordinating a controversial program among the many bickering departments in government. But for all the dirty details from WITSEC "snitches," one of the best, and most tragic, tales in the book is the story of Witness X, the wife of a Brooklyn mobster, who explains how her life fell apart after she was thrust into the program.

Shur and Earley spoke to Salon from their homes about how WITSEC convinced Mafia witnesses to break the code of "omertà" or silence, why international terrorists make good WITSEC candidates and how Shur himself at one time became a WITSEC participant.

This question is for Pete Earley: Were there certain criticisms of WITSEC that you were particularly curious about?

Earley: By its nature it is a very controversial program because you're taking people who are -- and this is not a word that Gerry uses, but I do -- snitches, and you're rewarding them.

Shur: That's a word that I always tell people not to use in front of me. These people are finally doing the right thing. They're cooperating.

Earley: Gerry says that he doesn't like the word "reward," but you're in essence letting them off the hook a little lighter than someone else to get the bigger fish.

Shur: Actually, it's not WITSEC that lets them off lighter. That has to do with another process. When we decide to put somebody in the witness program, we have no input into what their sentences would be.

How bad was the Mafia in 1961 when you started working for the Justice Department?

Shur: They dominated the criminal activity of most major cities. They were in over 50 different industries. In many areas, they controlled the movement of goods; in New York, they controlled things down to electrical permits, the garbage industry and building La Guardia Airport. They dominated many unions in the United States.

There are two positions inside La Cosa Nostra that make it different than organized crime. One is the corrupter, the person who's supposed to go out and bribe people -- councilmen, cops, agents -- so he can keep the operation going. The other one is the enforcer, the one who maintains the internal integrity of the organization, kills informants and witnesses and follows the code of omertà ["law of silence"].

Earley: The other thing you should realize was that not only did the Mafia have tremendously more power than it does today, but law enforcement knew very little about it. We've all seen "The Godfather," we've all seen "The Sopranos," but the truth is, until Joe Valachi [a 30-year veteran New York criminal and member of the Vito Genovese crime family who identified 317 mob members] came forward in the 1960s, nobody knew about any of that.

Shur: J. Edgar Hoover specifically didn't want to admit there was such a thing as the Mafia. So the FBI did not have a lot of resources devoted to fighting organized crime until Bobby Kennedy became attorney general and ordered it.

What made Valachi different? Why was he one of the first people to break this code of silence?

Shur: He was going to be murdered. He was in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, having been convicted on a narcotics case involving a very notorious racketeer named Vito Genovese. Then, one day, Valachi actually got this kiss on the cheek that you hear about, indicating that he was going to be done in. He decided that he knew who was going to kill him, picked up a lead pipe one day, whacked this guy over the head [in the prison yard]. He killed the wrong guy. Valachi goes to the warden and says, "Get me the feds, I want to talk to them."

Earley: What you discover when you talk to these Mafia types is that everybody wants to look in the mirror and feel good about themselves. They all had an explanation for turning against their former pals. Their general explanation was that they'd fallen out of favor and were about to get killed, or were going to do big time in a penitentiary. This was their way out.

Shur: That's one of the principal incentives. They would say, "They're going to kill me," or "They took away the moneymaking part of the business," or "I went to jail and did time and they didn't treat my family right."

Did you offer Valachi protection first?

Shur: There wasn't a witness protection program at the time. He simply came in and offered up this information. We had, for the first time, a living being who was going to tell us what the Mafia's really like. The first thing he tells us is that it's not called the Mafia, it's called La Cosa Nostra ["our thing"]. That's the first time we hear the name.

Do you believe that WITSEC broke omertà? Do you think it sent irreversible ripples throughout the Mafia community?

Shur: Oh yeah. WITSEC and wiretapping, two major things in the investigative phase. You're listening in on their telephones, so they go out in the street to talk. They're talking to a person and whispering in his ear and that person turns out to be our witness that's coming into the program the next day. Their communications were terribly disrupted; it caused distrust in the organization. Not only did we get tens of thousands of convictions, but we caused an organization to be quite upset. How do you deal with each other? Anyone could turn you in tomorrow.

Earley: Nobody trusted anyone after that.

What was surprising to me, though -- and you mentioned that they often said they'd "fallen out of favor with their family" -- was that they were just as eager to gain acceptance from the police.

Shur: Yes, they had to belong to an organization. Suddenly, they would start to say "We're going to convict." It was an "I need to be attached" and "I need approval" kind of thing. As Joe Valachi kept saying to me: "Did I do all right, Gerry?"

After all of your experiences with these men, do you have a more complex understanding of them? Or do you mostly feel that they're cold, brutal killers?

Shur: Well, those who kill are killers. But I don't believe in saying they're bad people; I believe that people do bad things. Once you say they are bad people, you are then saying that there is nothing I can do to rehabilitate or change them. If you say they're people who do bad things, then perhaps I can alter some of that behavior.

Why do you think that WITSEC is a rehabilitation program?

Shur: We do things that you don't get when you come out of prison. When you come out of prison, you get a bus ticket out of town and a little assistance in finding work. When we relocate a witness, we have a witness security inspector who's assigned to take care of the family's needs. The witness is helped getting a job, finding a place to live, he gets a check until he finds a job. If he has a health problem, he has a person he calls who comes over. We give him psychological aid. They're getting very intense social worker help -- from someone who's also trained to carry a gun and arrest people.

Earley: And there's also a very good reason for this. If they become exposed publicly, they'll be killed. So there's a good incentive to stay hidden and make the program work.

But what about when someone's demands become too much? You talk about how you need to keep these people happy, and that seems like a daunting task.

Shur: When the guy says to you, "If you don't send me to France, I'm not going to testify," or says to you, "I'm not going to have black deputies around me. If you put black deputies around me, I'm not going to testify" or "If you don't give me this number of thousand dollars a month ..." I tell them, "Hey, this is what you get."

Earley: How about the guy and his girlfriend?

Are you talking about the guy who demanded penis surgery because he wasn't able to have sex otherwise?

Shur: Well, that's one. A psychiatrist came forward and said that the guy absolutely needed that surgery or he'd commit suicide. The object was to have the people treated, at least medically, as they would have been at home. No plastic surgery like in the movies.

Earley: Of course, there were the breast implants for Aladena "Jimmy the Weasel" Fratianno's wife. [Fratianno was known as the "Mafia's executioner on the West Coast" and contacted the FBI in 1977 after being indicted for murder and having a hit put out on him by Los Angeles crime boss Dominic Brooklier.] And there's the case where a guy asked Gerry to move his girlfriend but not his wife.

Oh, boy. It's amazing -- in many cases, you did have to relocate girlfriends and wives.

Shur: He knew in his heart that [his wife] would be killed. So the object was to have me become the substitute for his divorce court. I wasn't about to do that.

Let me go to something that's more current. The first Middle Eastern people I dealt with, and some Israeli prisoners that we've had, were used to bargaining. So if you said to them, "We'll give you $600 a month to live on," they would always start up high: "Well, I want $1,800." I had a sense of being in a bazaar at times. One person who offered to testify in a terrorist case -- one that I can't identify -- told me that he'd testify if I gave him a million dollars cash. No way.

Since we're talking about international terrorists, what kind of complications arose from trying to deal with them?

Shur: Cultural differences. We had another Middle Easterner who wanted his wife to be subservient. He didn't want her going to college, he didn't want her driving a car, he didn't want her wearing Western clothing. She was privately telling us that she wanted to do all these things. Do you sneak her out and let her go to college? We arranged for a counselor to meet with both of them and talk it through.

Do you think WITSEC is being used in the investigation of Sept. 11?

Earley: Absolutely.

Shur: It will be, but you can't say it is. If there are trials, then you have to have witnesses, and if you have to have witnesses then they likely will be members of al-Qaida, and those people will have to go into the witness program.

Earley: Al-Qaida members already have testified. In 1998, in the embassy bombings case, some al-Qaida members were hidden by WITSEC after they testified about Osama bin Laden.

Shur: And in the 1993 World Trade Center case.

And they're relocated in the U.S.?

Earley: That's correct.

But one might think, after all we've heard about al-Qaida members willing to die for their cause, that being offered a new life somewhere in the Midwest -- in a country they supposedly despise -- wouldn't be all that appealing. And it might be hard to believe that they wouldn't return to their old terrorist ways. Does this worry you?

Earley: The most recent case of an al-Qaida member entering WITSEC was a witness who testified in the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. The case could not have been made without him. What makes this interesting is the chronology. The fellow who ended up testifying had been living in Brooklyn when he was first recruited at his local mosque to join al-Qaida. He then moved to the Middle East, went through Osama bin Laden's training camps and rose up the hierarchy until he was near the top. He became disillusioned with the terrorist group when he learned that bin Laden was paying higher salaries to many of his friends than to his other followers. This led to him stealing al-Qaida funds. Afraid that the organization would kill him, he ended up volunteering as a witness.

There are three mistakes that people make when it comes to terrorists.

One is [not understanding] that most of the high-ranking officials in al-Qaida have lived or studied in the United States. Many were recruited here to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. This means that they are aware of our customs, which makes it easier for them to be relocated, and it also suggests that many of them didn't really hate the United States as deeply as you might have thought. Yes, they do not want the U.S. involved in Middle Eastern affairs, but they didn't mind living here before Osama bin Laden went after the U.S.

You also should realize that most of the foot soldiers who were being controlled by al-Qaida and the Taliban were poor and ignorant people. Oftentimes, their parents turned them over to Islamic schools because the families couldn't support them. These soldiers are not who the government is hoping to "flip over." And they are the most militant.

Second, while members of the Mafia didn't hate the United States, they, too, belonged to a secret society whose values were in direct opposition to our own. Yet, when these killers, who had dedicated their lives to organized crime, became witnesses, they often turned into zealots for the government. You might think that terrorists would be harder to crack, but I wonder. Self-survival is a strong instinct.

And lastly, no one in the government is going to run the risk of putting an unrepentant terrorist in a neighborhood. Tighter monitoring can be done. Also, recall that WITSEC is a two-step system. The first is prison, and then only witnesses who are not deemed to be a risk are relocated.

Ask yourself this: If a terrorist had come to the FBI on Sept. 10 and said, "I know about a major attack coming down tomorrow in New York City" -- what would you have offered him in exchange for his cooperation? And even if he had gone bad eventually, how many lives would you have saved by using his information the first time around?

Shur: Also, consider the Witness Security Reform Act, which sets out factors that must be considered before a witness may be placed in the WITSEC. The law clearly sets out what I had to consider in every case and would have to be considered in connection with al-Qaida. What it gets down to is that you don't put anybody into the witness program without making a determination whether society is better off.

I actually dealt with the first World Trade Center bombing and terrorists in the '80s. Once they decided to testify, they didn't want to get in any trouble. The only place to go for help is the government. I can't recall an incident where a terrorist committed another crime after being in the program. They don't want to go to prison and they're looking for the best deal they can get. One motivation is "I got caught and I really don't want to die." And then there's the opportunity to live a good life without being threatened. It's not bad living in the United States. But if you believe he'll do more damage, you don't relocate him.

What else does it take for someone to qualify for WITSEC in the first place?

Shur: They must have very, very important information that they will testify to. Are there other ways we can introduce the same evidence without using the witness? Then if we conclude it's very important, I want to know whether he's really in danger. We have people testifying in murder trials every day, and those people aren't killed. In organized crime cases and narcotics cases, you have a much higher risk. Then I would look to see whether the person would fit into the program. Can we deal with him? Will he abide by the rules of the program?

Was there any point in your career where you particularly wrestled with the idea of murderers being let loose in society? Was there any moment where you were really grappling with this?

Shur: I was always concerned about it, but one thing I realized was that I wasn't releasing this murderer in society, this murderer is already in society. And he's in society with 35 others, like Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano was. [Gravano, who killed 19 people himself, helped put away John Gotti in 1992]. And if we take Sammy Gravano and use him, we can put 35 murderers in prison, leaving one out who promises he'll never commit a crime again. That turned out to be right; WITSEC's recidivism rate is about 10 percent now. Compare that to the state's recidivism rate of 40 to 50 percent.

But to put the question differently: Did some of these people really trouble me? Yes. Are there times, with hindsight, I look back and say, why did we put that witness in the program? We should have put the defendant in the program and had the defendant testify against the witness.

Was there any particular case, besides the case of Marion Albert Pruett, that you felt was a failure? [Pruett was a convicted bank robber who testified against Allen "Big Al" Benton after "Big Al" murdered William Zambito while all three men were in the Atlanta Penitentiary in 1978. After testifying and entering WITSEC, Pruett went on an interstate crime spree, robbing stores and banks and killing eight people.]

Shur: I never viewed Pruett as a failure of the program. The witness security program didn't cause Pruett to kill. There were cases that caused me to feel awfully bad. But it wasn't that I would have to rethink whether we should've put someone in the program. It's that once we're dealing with a criminal, is there anything else we can do to minimize the chance that he'll commit crime? That was my concern.

Was there any specific example?

Shur: After Pruett, of course, I thought we should be much more intensive in making psychiatrists and psychologists available, and very early on.

And you do administer psychological tests.

Shur: Yes, to everybody over the age of 18. The first reason we did them was because [Pruett] went off and killed a lot of people and Congress said, "We want you to predict violence with psychological testing." Problem with that is that the American Association of Psychologists said that you cannot predict violence with certainty. When I mentioned that to a congressional staffer, he said that was my problem, do it anyway. So we were left with having to do that.

Pruett's case was one of the low points of your career. What do you think it proved, if anything?

Shur: I have relocated people with backgrounds more violent than his that never committed another crime.

Earley: And if you look at the case of Arthur Kane [a 10-year WITSEC participant who, in 1987, walked into a Miami Merrill Lynch office, started shooting people and then shot himself] of all the people, you thought what, Gerry?

Shur: [That he was] the most docile human being I'd ever met.

Earley: You would have guessed he would have been the last to commit another crime.

Shur: He didn't want to relocate, never was involved in violence of any kind in his life, was a very giving person. He was a lawyer who dealt in ambulance chasing, securities frauds and corrupt stuff like that, but not a violent guy. Loved his family. Followed the rules very well in the program. He was so anxious to go to work and took a job as a claims adjuster for the Social Security Administration in Florida.

So what do you think happened?

Shur: He flipped. The stock market crashed in '87 and he had invested over a half a million dollars of his wife's money, and he saw that he wiped her out. He thought he cost the family everything.

The personal story of the wife of that Mobster -- you call her Witness X in the book -- was really heartbreaking. How much care can you give to the family members?

Shur: They pay the highest price. The biggest thing they suffer from is not being able to go home. They can't go back to a family affair or a wedding or a funeral. You hear your mother's dying and you can't go home. So, what we would do is sneak people into a hospital before the person dies. Once, after a death, we thought a former witness psychologically had to see the deceased. We couldn't take him to the funeral home because it was run by racketeers, so we arranged for the body to be moved from that funeral home to another place.

Earley: [These stories] show how much of our identity is based on our past and our relationships. Everybody has this fantasy: Oh, won't it be great, I could just disappear, get a new name and start all over. What you discover is that this is the worst thing any of these people ever had to do. Once your past is taken away from you, and you're living a lie, it's almost like you don't exist.

Has anyone thought about giving more compensation to family members in any way?

Shur: If you start giving money, you begin to violate the federal statute that prohibits the purchase of testimony. You would not be solving the real problem. The real problem is that they're cut off from their folks back home.

Earley: The only guy who really got away with a lot of [demands] -- and this was with Mr. Shur's protest -- was Jimmy Fratianno.

Shur: I protested how much money we gave him.

Earley: Fratianno kept trying to go to people above Mr. Shur. He's the one that got the breast implants for his wife. Of course, he was the biggest fish at the time that they'd ever caught.

Who are the toughest types of criminals to get to testify?

Shur: Members of organized crime -- be it La Cosa Nostra or a Colombian narcotics organization or a motorcycle gang or a terrorist group -- none of them want to testify. Nobody walks up to us and says, "You know, I've been doing all these bad things all my life, and I've decided to change my ways." There has to be some motivation, something pushing them, that forces them to make a choice. Either you tell because of vengeance, or I tell because I'm about to be hurt or killed. But not: I tell because I've fallen in love with the American flag.

Then they have to be able to blend into these communities that you put them in. Even that story about Sal from Brooklyn -- he stuck out in South Dakota with his stereotypical gold chains and chest hair. How are the communities chosen that they're placed in?

Shur: You try to find somewhere they will be comfortable, and it has to be large enough to absorb them. The first few years we made a terrible mistake: We put everybody in Florida and California because they all said they wanted to go there. That was bad. You have to look at where the danger areas are. We ask: Where have you traveled? Where have you spent time? Where are your relatives living? All those places are excluded.

Earley: Donald "Bud" McPherson's experience is interesting. He was one of the only marshals who wanted to have anything to do with these guys. So they all ended up going out to Orange County, Calif. And the reason is because back then they didn't have cellphones and pagers, and Bud wanted them to be within an hour of his house. So he had 20 mobsters in this one area -- that's what led to the movie "My Blue Heaven."

Can you give a sense of where you think the Mob would be today without the program?

Shur: They would be very strong and very influential in politics, in city councils, in police departments. They'd still be controlling illegal gambling, and they'd probably still control Las Vegas.

Earley: A good answer for that is to look at what happened in Italy. They weren't able to protect people, and if you study the mob in Italy, you'll see that it still had tremendous power and influence, and corrupted the whole country. The one prosecutor who tried to change it got blown up. I'm not an expert on the Italian Mafia, but I have seen studies that show just how much money is wasted on corruption. You wouldn't want the United States to be facing the same kind of corruption problems that they do in Italy.

Gerry doesn't like to be flippant, but I will. You could say that the Sopranos would be in the White House.

What kind of threats did you and your family face?

Shur: There was a time when my daughter answered the phone at home and someone said, "Have you thought about death? It's about time you start." One time, she was coming home from school and a car went by and she thinks that she was shot at, she heard a loud pop.

Once, I had one of the witnesses in my office. He was very disgruntled, certainly not a criminal intellectual, and he looked at the picture of my wife and looked at me and said, "Have you thought about how you'd feel if she suddenly turned up missing?" And so we had a talk about that. We discussed how he would feel when I asked thousands of FBI agents to investigate his family and his friends and his friends' friends and made sure that they all told him that they were being investigated because of what he just said. Then I told him something that I told many people after: "You have just become my wife's insurer. You should pray that she doesn't trip, fall or scrape her hands."

What finally caused you to enter the program?

Shur: I learned that a person from the Medellín cartel, which was then the major narcotics cartel, had told one of the agents that he'd been assigned the job of kidnapping either my wife or I to find out where a witness is relocated. What they didn't know is that I always made sure -- it was built into the system -- that I would not know where witnesses were. We thought it best that I leave Washington. We went into hiding in a hotel. Marshals would meet me at night, follow me for a while and tell me it was clear, and I would drive around for an hour before I would head to where I was really going.

Did that alter your perspective on the program in any way?

Shur: It made me realize that it was every bit as uncomfortable as we were telling people. I had to go into my granddaughter's graduation -- we're very family-oriented -- but [my family] doesn't know about the kidnapping threats. When we hid in the hotel, our phone from home was forwarded to the room, so when they called us, we picked up as usual. We had to tell them that I had to work and we'd be late. So we snuck in and snuck out, got on a cellphone and left a message on the machine about something we saw there, so she knew that we were there.

Father's Day was a big deal, too. I told them I had to work but that the Department of Justice has this really wonderful courtyard. Why don't you all come down to the courtyard and we'll go and picnic? Of course, the Justice Department was guarded and we had Father's Day.

Advancements in technology must make everything a bit more complicated, too.

Shur: The Internet makes it easier for people to do searches, but I have not heard of a single witness found on the Internet yet, except for those who want to be found on the Internet.

Earley: You laugh, but Henry Hill [of "Goodfellas" fame] does. He was in WITSEC, but like a lot of these guys he just couldn't quite not want to be famous.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

MORE FROM Suzy Hansen

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Author Interviews Books