Witness Protection Program Failures You Won't Believe
We see it in movies all the time. A mob boss is threatening a witness, so the authorities place the witness in the witness protection program — arguably one of the safer places to be in such a situation. At least, that's what Hollywood tells us. The reality is a little less safe for witnesses and the general public alike. Check out these stories about times that witness protection programs have failed — on a level you won't believe.
Papers, Get Your Papers
Not just the cry of newspaper boys in the 1920s, it's also a rallying point for witness protection programs. They offer new identities for their witnesses, which means new paperwork for those identities to get created. That doesn't always work out as advertised, however.
Ignoring Warning Signs
Surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly, depending on how you look at it) not everyone who asks to be put into a witness protection program is granted the opportunity, and sometimes, the result can be deadly. Jimmy Roberts faced just such consequences after agreeing to testify against drug dealer Abe Hagos.
Some witness protection programs boast that they've never lost a witness; not every program can say that, though. One man in particular paid the ultimate price for agreeing to testify against some high-level drug dealers. Corry Thomas had been caught transporting drugs and cut a deal with law enforcement.
New Identity, New Criminal History
Mario Pruett saw his cellmate being murdered, so he agreed to testify as a witness and entered a witness protection program during and after the case. When he was released from prison, he did so with a new identity and with certain protections. The public would pay dearly for these.
Entering witness protection can have a huge impact on other people in your life — or your former life — because you're not allowed to tell even your closest loved ones about your new identity. Thomas Leonhard discovered this the hard way in 1967 when his children and ex-wife mysteriously vanished one day.
Taking Advantage of the System
Some people, unfortunately, abuse witness protection programs for their own advantage. One man who goes by "Tony" claims he works as a "career informant."
A Mixed Bag
Witness protection programs can produce mixed results from time to time. Henry Hill, for example, entered a witness protection program, and his testimony ended up helping law enforcement bring down some of New York's biggest mobsters.
Michael Anthony Drew, a violent gang leader from St. Louis, agreed to cooperate with law enforcement over a racketeering case. He wound up under witness protection once the case was done. Afterward, he was relocated to Maine, and the government assumed he was starting a new life up north.
Protecting Sex Predators
While we’d like to think that all the witnesses involved in protection programs are innocent victims trying their hardest to help tip the scales in justice's favor, that isn't the case. In one terrifying report (written by the Department of Justice), it was revealed that sex predators were involved in the program.
Rules Are There for a Reason
Perhaps we shouldn't expect criminals to have much regard for the rules, but when it comes to their own safety we’d hope they’d listen a little more. Apparently, that's not the case. Daniel LaPolla suffered the consequences of ignoring the rules of his witness protection program.
Ignorance Is Not Bliss
Sometimes, not knowing something can have deadly consequences. Javad Marshall-Fields found this out the hard way. After surviving a shooting that proved deadly for his friend, he agreed to testify against the shooter. From that moment onward, Marshall-Fields was a marked man.
A Seriously Overpaid Witness
Witness protection programs can sometimes work a little too well. The goal is to protect, after all, not make people rich. For 10 years, however, one man ignored that principle and used the system to his advantage.
If we're to believe what we see in movies, once someone enters a witness protection program, they're protected for life. In reality, that isn't the case. Nancy Burdell found this out after agreeing to testify in a murder case.
The Tragedy of Diana Merced
Diana Merced was a woman who, in 1989, was planning to testify against a well-known drug dealer, Joseph Navedo. She wanted to cooperate with law enforcement and act as a witness against him, but she was scared (with good reason) that he or his people might try to retaliate against her. She specifically asked for additional protection from the NYPD.
A Close Call
John Dowery was looking at a 10-year prison sentence when he decided instead to cut a deal with police and act as a witness in a murder trial. Despite his cooperation with authorities, however, they failed to protect him when it mattered the most, and he nearly died because of their negligence.
Failure by Exclusion
Witnesses aren't always put into witness protection programs; sometimes they aren't even told that the programs exist. Unfortunately, this can lead to catastrophic consequences for the witnesses involved. Natisha Gallegos, the only eyewitness to a case, obtained a restraining order against her husband and received several death threats but was never offered a place in a protection program.
Taking Advantage of Loopholes
Maybe there's only so much the government can do to protect the public, but if it’s in charge of someone in witness protection, maybe we should expect a little bit more. The government certainly failed to protect the public in the case of Jonathan Barclay, a man with a long criminal history.
Kidnapped and Killed
The tragic case of Robert Bishun happened in 2016. Bishun, a former drug dealer who agreed to testify against an NYPD cop who was allegedly involved in the drug business himself, didn't survive long after he agreed to cooperate with law enforcement.
Racking Up Debt
It's not surprising to hear that after a life of crime, some criminals find it hard to turn to an honest, above-the-board lifestyle. Some people have found some pretty sneaky ways of raking in money while involved in the program.
Flaws in Israel's System
The U.S. isn't the only country with a witness protection program — and it’s not the only country to have seen some serious failures come out of these programs. One case in Israel went all the way to the Supreme Court when a former witness and his wife sued for damages after their identities had been found out.
Not every person involved in a witness protection program plays by the rules, and many of them cause trouble while they're enrolled in the programs. Anthony Casso, for example, was a problem for authorities. Even his fellow Mafia members thought he was a maniac, so he was pretty troublesome for law enforcement.
Criminal Dumping Ground
Most people involved in witness protection programs aren’t totally innocent, no matter what the movies say. In fact, fewer than 5% of witnesses in these programs are innocent; the rest were involved with crime themselves until they became informants.
One Young Witness
Witness protection programs don't always just help individuals; sometimes they have to help entire families. Jackee Taylor was just seven years old when her family entered a witness protection program. Looking back, she says she wishes they'd put her in foster care instead.
Some people offer themselves up willingly to the authorities in order to gain access to protection programs. Other times, the authorities have to chase people down. But they don't always make the right choices in terms of who their informants are.
Witnesses are supposed to be well-protected when they join witness protection programs; that's sort of the whole point. However, many of these programs don't live up to their name, and authorities can fail in big ways when it comes to offering the promised protection for their witnesses.
As you’ve probably learned by now, witness protection programs don't always deliver on their promises to witnesses. One such example of this happened in Canada when Shawn Balch and Tammy Spooner (two drug dealers who hoped for a chance to start over to make a better life) made a deal with the government and entered a witness protection program.
Back to a Life of Crime
John Patrick Tully, a member of the Campisi crime family, decided to turn from being a convicted murderer to an informant for law enforcement. He entered a witness protection program shortly afterward. However, his renewed attempt at life didn't last long.
Not Much of a Life
David Mooney was failed by his witness protection program in a more roundabout, but nonetheless tragic, way. After entering the program, he says that he was promised a house, a car and a green card in order to help him build a new life, but he didn’t receive any of those things.
Cooking Up a New Life
Former Mafia member Joseph "Joe Dogs" Iannuzzi was part of the Gambino family before he left and entered a witness protection program to start a new life. But after he entered the program, he wrote a book called "The Mafia Cookbook" — not exactly hiding his former life.
No Escape From Gang Life
Lawndale "Lonnie" Nutall was a gang member who apparently had had enough. After witnessing a murder, he decided he wanted no more of the gang life and agreed to cooperate with law enforcement to act as a witness in the case.