Witness Protection Program Failures You Won't Believe

By Jake Schroeder
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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.

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James Cardinali, a mob errand boy, claims that while he was offered a new identity for cooperating with law enforcement, he never got it. All he got was a driver's license with a new name on it. The rest of his documents remain under his old name, leaving him at risk for retaliation.

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.

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Roberts received many death threats, but authorities never put him in witness protection. Even after someone attempted to murder him, he still wasn't accepted. Unfortunately, his would-be killers eventually succeeded, and he was murdered one day on his way to work.

Deadly Deal

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.

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He was supposed to go into witness protection in exchange for his testimony, but he never even made it into the program. Before he could enter it, he was murdered in front of his sister's home. The program failed him before it could even begin to help.


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.

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Under his new identity, he murdered his wife, robbed multiple banks, killed a bank officer and murdered three convenience store clerks. He was offered a new chance at life and he threw it away, causing death and grief in his wake.

Separating Families

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.

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It turned out that his ex's new husband was a mob informant, so they and the children had to go into witness protection. Leonhard wasn't allowed to know their new identities and didn't get to see his own children again until much later in 1975.

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."

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There's no incentive to stop being involved in crime, he says, even after you're in the program, so some people continue to be involved. They then turn around and work with the government to testify, raking in money and protection from the people they're testifying against. Tony says he can make up to $280,000 per case — a lucrative career, though an unfortunate method for the rest of us.


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.

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The results of Hill’s entry into a witness protection program weren't all positive, though. After his testimony was finished, he went on to be arrested for burglary, for drunk driving and for selling two pounds of cocaine. Eventually, the program couldn't handle the crimes anymore, and Hill was thrown out, left to fend for himself.

Fake Rehabilitation

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.

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However, his new life wasn't exactly a fresh start free of crime and under-the-table dealings. He went back pretty quickly to his violent ways and ended up getting arrested after he threatened a drug informant with a gun.

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.

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Not only were they involved, but, when they moved into new neighborhoods, the program didn't warn the neighbors about them. People who had sexually assaulted children were allowed to live in neighborhoods with no warning given to the families already living there.


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.

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He wasn't supposed to return home, but he ignored that rule to go back so he could attend a funeral. But his home had been rigged to blow up; as soon as he turned the door handle, the house exploded.

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.

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Chicago had a fund to protect witnesses like him, but no one told him about it because "he never asked." As a result, his identity wasn't protected (in fact it was well-known), and days before his testimony both Marshall-Fields and his fiancée were gunned down in the street.

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.

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Aladena "Jimmy the Weasel" Fratianno was the highest-paid informant in witness protection history from 1977 to 1987. The program was paying for his auto insurance, his wife's breast implants and his real estate taxes, among other things. His mother-in-law even got monthly checks. The program eventually cut him off, after paying him nearly a million dollars.


Time Limits

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.

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She was a witness to the crime and joined a witness protection program during the course of the trial, but all the program did was move her to a location where agents claimed she was safer. Additionally, the program ended three months after the criminal was sentenced. (Unfortunately, this is a common practice in protection programs.)

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.

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Unfortunately, even while she was in witness protection, it wasn't enough to keep her safe. Before she could testify, two unidentified people found her at her mother's apartment and shot her in the face.

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.

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After the trial, he thought things were going okay — that is, until two men showed up in his front yard and shot him six times. He nearly died, and only barely survived because of a very skilled doctor.


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.

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Despite her fears, authorities didn't appear to take her seriously, and it ended in her tragic demise. Natisha was found dead on the floor of her bedroom, having been stabbed 67 times.

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.

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After entering the program, Barclay found a loophole. He was arrested but gave authorities his witness protection name, so he was considered a first-time offender and avoided a significantly longer prison sentence. Later, he killed a woman while driving under the influence.

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.

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He was found strangled in the back of his car after he was kidnapped from his auto shop. Alston, the cop who worked with Bishun on drug deals, was accused of the murder, but there was no evidence linking him to the crime. Bishun could have benefitted from better protection.


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.

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One method they employ is to use their new identities to rack up immense amounts of debt. Then they tell their supervisors in the program that someone from their old life has seen them, and they need a new identity to avoid being retaliated against. They avoid debt charges and also keep collecting money from the government.

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.

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Later it was decided that the mistake had been due to some serious police negligence, and the couple were in danger as a result. The court ruled in their favor, but that was still a pretty dangerous situation for them to be in.

Problem Witness

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.

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While the FBI was using him as an informant, he continued to live a life of violence. He did everything from bribing guards to fighting with other witnesses in the program. Eventually, he was kicked out; he was doing more harm than good.


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.

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The result, unfortunately, is that protected criminals are being relocated without warnings for the authorities in the criminals’ new areas. One police chief in Maine, in 1995, complained that his area was becoming a dumping ground for these people, and police weren't being warned beforehand about potentially dangerous witnesses entering the area.

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.

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Children in witness protection programs complain of often being put up in motels instead of actual homes or apartments. Furthermore, they often can't go to school, so they're missing out on a lot of their education and many major social opportunities.

Unreliable Informant

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.

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In the 1960s, for example, the FBI convinced Joseph Barboza (a mob member) to turn into an informant. However, the information they got from him wasn't particularly reliable, and he ended up back in jail several times. The authorities eventually dropped him from the program.


Police Failure

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.

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Robert "Rob" Alexander Jr. testified in a murder case in Washington, D.C. Less than a month later, after police failed to offer him proper protection, he was dead. He'd been shot nine times, and his body was left sprawled out in the street.

False Promises

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.

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Instead of the support and addiction treatment they were promised, they claim they were forced to move to an unknown city. They lost all their possessions and continue to fear for their safety. They feel the program failed them.

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.

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He ended up robbing a bank and started a hot dog stand with the money. Throughout the following years, he continued to commit minor crimes and had run-ins with the police due to his intoxication and drunk driving. Witness protection programs apparently aren't a turning point for everyone.


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.

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He ended up suing the state for leaving him impoverished. He couldn't work, claimed he was afraid for his life and said that when he applied for welfare, he was refused. His identity may be safe, but he’s far from perfectly protected.

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.

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Witness protection rules state that you're not allowed to contact the media. Iannuzzi ignored that rule and tried to promote his book, going so far as to schedule an appearance on The Late Show. His segment was canceled, and he was kicked out of the program for contacting the media.

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.

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Unfortunately for Nutall, he wasn't offered any kind of protection in exchange for his testimony, which left him at risk for retaliation from gang members who weren't so keen on his change of heart — and they took advantage of that. Just days before his scheduled testimony, he was murdered.