Most Epic Fails of the Witness Protection Program – So you decided to make a deal with law enforcement on the condition that you and your family be moved across the country, be given new identities, and be safe from the people you are going to testify against. You’ve been informed in no uncertain terms that you will come to no harm; you can start a new life and can forget all about the somewhat devilish people you got involved with.
Then one day you walk outside your home to fix the sprinkler. Across from your perfect green lawn and sculptured hedgerow, just meters from your white picket fence, a car is parked and inside it you see a shady looking man. He takes one look at you and drives away. You’ve seen that kind of face before. He’s one of the bad guys. You’ve been found.
That’s a fictional scene of course, but we might ask if this kind of thing has actually happened in real life. But before we get to that, let’s just explain first what the witness protection program is. If you are going to testify against people who might make you “disappear” or at least threaten you and your family you’ll need some kind of security.
This will be before the trial, during the trial and after the trial. It’s been used time and again when people have testified against organized crime and other criminals, with some notable cases being when folks testified against the Italian-American mafia. In many cases the witness will be given a new identity and moved across the country.
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This is not something that changes after the heat dies down. You will assume this identity for life, because in the world of organized crime it’s not as if a grudge will dissipate after a year or so. These programs exist in many countries around the world, not just the USA. Entering in a such a program is not to be taken lightly.
Just imagine suddenly having to become someone else. Losing you friends; in some cases being torn away from relatives, and having to live a big lie in the new place where you have been secretly sequestered. Then as we described in the opening scene, you might be living under constant stress for the rest of your life.
Things can go horribly wrong before the trial has even been concluded. You’ve stood up and told the cops you are willing to testify, and then bam, someone gets you. This happened in 1989 to a person named Diana Merced. On March 9th of that year she was shot in the face behind her mother’s third-floor apartment in a housing project in the Bronx area of New York City.
It turned out that she had been cooperating with the cops to put her former boyfriend behind bars. It was perhaps this boyfriend, the father of her son, who shot her. He might also have hired some assassins. She’d been told she was safe, which obviously wasn’t the case. On the very morning the trial was scheduled to take place she got up in the morning and took the trash outside.
She didn’t die, but was badly injured in the attack. After this she sued the City of New York for failing to protect her. According to court documents we found, the city had assured her that she’d be ok, telling her “everything would be taken care of”. The authorities knew all about this violent boyfriend and knew he had threatened her life before and their son’s life.
Those court documents described the scene of the crime, stating, “Two shots struck the plaintiff: one penetrated her right shoulder and the other lodged in her cheekbone. The two assailants fled immediately. The perpetrators of the shooting were never found, but the plaintiff is convinced that they were sent by Navedo to kill her, to prevent her from testifying against him”.
But the protection program fails in ways we might not have thought about. We might take the case of an Irishman who was put into that country’s program. His name is David Mooney and in 2016 he sued the authorities for what he said was a failure on their part. He’d testified in an extortion case and was told he’d be set up with a big cash handout and a new identity.
According to the Irish media, he never received that cash. His new life was a nightmare and he lived in poverty, unable to work. He’d actually been fairly wealthy before the trial, owning a nightclub. At the nightclub he’d been told by local criminals that he’d have to pay them some cash. This was extortion, and Mooney was told if he didn’t pay, people were going to get hurt.
In the end Mooney testified against the extortionists and was told he’d receive the following,according to the Irish Times: “A new house, car, name, date of birth, personal public service number, an income, and a green card for the USA”. He said he didn’t get that, and sued. He didn’t win his case. The witness protection program also fails in ways relating to it helping crooked people get out of trouble after they get into the program.
We might take the case of a New Zealand man named Jonathan Barclay. This guy was a seasoned criminal, but he’d testified against other criminals and been given a new identity. Then he was relocated, but his criminal ways remained. He was arrested in his new town, and he used his real name. He was told that if he committed another crime he’d be in serious trouble.
That didn’t stop him, and just months later he was arrested again on a drunk-driving charge,but this time he used the name of his new identity. Because it now looked like his first crime he got off. This man just weeks later, while drunk and driving at very high speeds, hit another car with a young woman inside.
She died at the scene. The young women’s mother then found out about what happened; that the man who had killed her daughter really should have been locked up. She told the press, “The whole system wasn’t working properly. I have to believe the system has to have a big change”. After this much was said about how people cope with the program, and while not making excuses for the man, it was discussed that when in the program there is a lot of psychological stress.
Barclay was imprisoned again after the tragic accident that took the life of the girl, and authorities said when he gets out he will not be given another new identity. Now we go back to 1972 and a case that involved a man named Daniel La Polla. He’d been involved with organized crime and had taped the conversations of fellow criminals when a weapons deal was going down.
He’d been put under the witness protection program and told to stay away from home and any former mob associates, although he didn’t follow the rules and ended up going back to his old town to attend a funeral. The mob had known he’d return and so rigged his house with explosives. When La Polla opened his front door when he got home the bomb went off and he was blown to pieces.
Staying with the mob, we might look at the case of Louis Bombacino. He’d testified against many of his associates, including some big mafia names. For that, he was sent to live in Tempe, Arizona, under the Witness Protection Program. It seems the mob caught up with him even though he had this new identity.
On October 6, 1975, he got up and then went outside and got into his car. He didn’t get very far, because when he turned the ignition key the thing exploded. He died at the scene. Now we go to a more recent story which involves a number of people who all ended up in a bad place. An innocent man named Robert Bishun was strangled and killed in the Bronx area of New York City in 2016.
Bishun had agreed to cooperate with authorities in a case against drug dealers and a drug dealing former police officer named Merlin Alston. It’s not clear from the news reports if the two men that killed Bishun did it because they were involved with Alston, or just because they knew he was working with the cops.
In the end the former cop got 20 years for his crimes, while the two killers both got life sentences. This one is a tale of a man that wanted to make a change but it ended in tragedy for him. In 2012, on some of the meanest streets of Chicago, Lawndale “Lonnie” Nutall, witnessed a gangland murder outside a convenience store.
The media writes that after this he was sick and tired of the violence on the streets and went to the police to testify. His mother told the press, “He wasn’t going to see someone get killed and not say anything. I don’t think he ever thought that someone would kill him”. Someone did. Some sources say Nutall was put into the protection program, but it’s not clear if he ever was.
He was certainly going to testify, and it’s very likely that’s why he was killed. Police said it’s hard to say, because there were so many murders in that area where helived. Now we go back to 2005 when a man named John P. Dowery Jr. was shot six times in a bar. He’d moved out of Baltimore where he was going to testify against some killers, but had returned home to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner.
As the Baltimore Sun reported, “The killing of Dowery has raised questions about what protection is given to Baltimore’s witnesses – and what can be done to keep them from putting themselves in harm’s way”. That report said that the hardest thing when it comes to protecting witnesses is getting them to stay away from their loved ones.
Understandably, they miss them, but the criminals who are being testified against know this only too well. Returning home is generally a huge mistake. The story of a man named Aladena “Jimmy the Weasel” Fratianno is one of the more well known regarding the witness protection program. The LA Times wrote that when he died in 1993 he was still living under an assumed name.
This man didn’t get killed while in the program, but he did exploit it. After being a mobster himself, the weasel turned government informant and witness in 1977. It’s said after that he lived a quiet life with his wife, but he became renowned for being the highest-paid participant in the history of the witness protection program.
His lifestyle cost the authorities almost one million bucks, and the bills he sent them included stuff like plastic surgery for his beloved. This is what he once said about living a life always looking your shoulder, “I don’t let stress bother me. I think that’s very important in a man’s life, in anybody’s life. Stress will age you quicker than anything. And I just try to take it easy”.
That he did, with the help of a government budget. Apparently, after his bills got too big they kicked him out of the program, but he still got to keep his new name. At the time the authorities reportedly said that the program was certainly not supposed to be a “pension fund for aging mobsters”.
Fratianno wasn’t happy about this split, telling the media, “They just threw me out on the street. I put 30 guys away, six of them bosses, and now the whole world’s looking for me”. He believed he was a dead man, but they never got him. He died of natural causes in the end. After his death his wife told the LA Times, “I loved my husband very much; he was sweet. He was a success because he went into the program and he survived. It is a better program now because of him”. The reason this is on the list is because racking up a bill of almost one million seems like a fail for law enforcement.
What do you think about the witness protection program? Think you could live an entirely new life?Let us know in the comments.