The Witness Protection Program (WITSEC) is, by definition, a secretive institution. In fact, the Department of Justice has only arranged for the press to interview one protected family since the program's creation in 1970 as part of the Organized Crime Control Act. So, as a consequence, the average person’s knowledge is limited to what they’ve seen in mobster movies and TV shows. Fascinating witness protection program facts are actually pretty hard to come by.
While Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) of AMC’s Better Call Saul may be the most entertaining on-screen character in the Witness Protection Program, Henry Hill from the movie Goodfellas is the most famous. Played by Ray Liotta and based on a real-life gangster of the same name, Hill describes life inside the program in the film’s memorable closing scene: “Today, everything is different. There's no action. I have to wait around like everyone else. Can't even get decent food. Right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce, and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I'm an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” Other movies about WITSEC – like the 1997 Kirstie Alley and Tim Allen romcom For Richer or Poorer and the 2009 Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant flick Did You Hear about the Morgans? – tell zany stories of couples coming together under the strange circumstances of witness protection.
But is that what it’s really like to be schnook? Read on to learn how the Witness Protection Program works and what it takes for a person to assume a new identity and start a new life from scratch.
You can thank the Italian mob for the inception of the Witness Protection Program. The Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, signed by President Richard Nixon, was specifically aimed at the grandfather of organized crime syndicates, the Italian mafia. Its purpose was to create standardized procedural rules for dealing with witnesses, and these rules included provisions for how to deal with perjury, the protection of witnesses, resistant witnesses, and witness self incrimination.
RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations), which any fan of Sons of Anarchy will be intimately familiar with, also comes from this Act.
Since its inception in 1971, WITSEC has protected over 18,000 witnesses. That’s a lot of witnesses! And it has a stellar track record when it comes to safety. Not a single person who has abided by the rules has been harmed or killed. David Harlow, acting director for the US Marshalls, attributes this success to the fact that "[no] one knows what [they] do to protect witnesses."
The cloak of mystery surrounding people who get spirited away from their lives into new ones allows the people who require WITSEC to stay alive, but it’s a different story for witnesses who leave the program.
While WITSEC has a ridiculously good track record of protecting those who abide by its rules and remain under the cover of their new identities, the same can't be said for those who go off script or go back to their old ways in the new environment.
Many like Brenda Paz, dubbed “the rainman of witnesses," don't last long. Just two days after returning home, her body was found stabbed and washed up on a Virginia riverbank. Others wind up back in the clink, like star witness Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, whose testimony helped convict John Gotti. After running a swimming pool business for a few years while in the program, he left and started an ecstacy ring. Sounds like he missed "the action." In 2012, he was slapped with a 20-year prison sentence.
If you’re a candidate for the program, you’ll get a visit from the feds, which may or may not be announced. Some witnesses get time to decide whether or not they want to join the program; others have to leave immediately upon the arrival of the US marshals. A witness whose former identity was Rae Devera told The New York Times that she could only take what she could fit in seven suitcases.
Anything that could possibly be identified and associated with her – photographs, children's artwork with their names on it, a sentimental necklace, and even her dog and cat – couldn't come along to the new location.