Protected Witness
A Three Part Series by Bill Moushey, (c) Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 26-31, 1996

Note: The "Protected Witness" series is copyrighted and cannot be disseminated without permission from the publisher, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Posted June 15, 1996

Deals with the devil:

Cloaked in secrecy, the witness protection program loses its innocence

By Bill Moushey
Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Copyright, 1996 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Even in prison, Salvatore Gravano was every bit the braggart he was on the streets of New York City.

He crowed to fellow inmates that he had killed 19 people --give or take a few --during his career.

He regaled them with stories about his adventures in the Mafia.

He confided to all who would listen that it was his testimony that brought down the feared John Gotti of New York's Gambino crime family.

And Gravano had something else to brag about. Because he gave prosecutors information that helped convict Gotti, Gravano's own life of murderous racketeering only cost him 3 1/2 years in prison. About three months per body.

Using the federal Witness Security Program, commonly called the witness protection program, federal officials traded a token prison sentence for his testimony.

And, Gravano boasted again, he got to keep $8 million in illegally gained assets and government rewards through his investment in crime.

Now free and rich, Gravano is living under an assumed name where unwitting neighbors know nothing about his past.

He has joined a long list of multiple killers, powerful drug distributors and other major criminals whose deals with the government are raising new questions about a program originally designed to trade smaller criminals for larger ones or to protect innocent citizens who risk their lives in order to bring criminals to justice.

Government officials say Gravano's deal was worth it, since he helped convict more than 50 other mob figures, making him one of the most significant Mafia defectors ever.

But while his testimony temporarily crippled leadership of the New York mob, its five crime families still exist, still thrive. In fact, John Gotti's son has now taken control of the Gambino family.

Some say it's the witness protection program that is out of control.

A yearlong investigation by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has revealed that the Witness Security Program has evolved in ways that were never intended by its creators and which, at times, threaten public safety rather than ensure it. These are among the findings:

During the last hearing in 1982, which was called after a protected witness killed at least six people in four states, federal officials apologetically told Congress they were going to pull in the program's reins. Its budget has grown by at least 80 percent since.
How it began
The Witness Security Program gained its first public attention in 1964 when Joseph Valachi, the first La Cosa Nostra member to publicly confirm that the organized crime group existed, appeared before a congressional committee.

Valachi was facing the death penalty after numerous convictions, including the beating death of an inmate at the U.S. Penitentiary at Atlanta.

Then federal agents made him a deal. If he would tell them what he knew about the Mafia, he would be freed and taken out of the country for his protection.

But unlike Gravano or other modern-day organized crime figures who got freedom and millions, Valachi got nothing more than solitary confinement for protection and $15 a month in prison pay. Bewildered by the broken promises, Valachi tried to commit suicide.

From this meager beginning, the program began to grow. In the early 1970s, it was estimated that "between 25 and 50 witnesses would be protected each year at a cost of less than $1 million,'' according to a 1983 audit of the program by the controller general of the United States.

By 1974, the government spent $3.1 million on 647 people admitted to the program that year.

By 1982, when the program took in 324 new witnesses, the total budget was $28.4 million. At the time, the Justice Department insisted the continued and longstanding involvement from witnesses previously enrolled in the program caused costs to soar.

Between 1989 and 1992, the program spent $138.2 million.

And for last year alone, the figure was $53 million.

The program gradually changed as it grew. Instead of solitary confinement for safety purposes, protected witnesses who followed Valachi were kept locked up in remote, highly secured sections of federal prisons or in remote county jails, safe houses and hotel rooms.

That changed again when high-profile Mafia members like Angelo Lonardo of Cleveland joined the program. Lonardo and other prize witnesses were kept in out-of-the-way mountain retreats or beach houses guarded by deputy U.S. marshals during their cooperation and confinement because the government decided such accommodations were safer than any prison could be.

Then in the early 1980s, the managers of the program, the Justice Department's Office of Enforcement Operations, institutionalized it by building the first of five special prison units in Otisville, N.Y., Sandstone, Minn., Phoenix, Allenwood, Pa., and Fairton, N.J.

Once out of prison, the witnesses usually get new names, new Social Security cards and trips to their new homes. And unless they strike lucrative deals like Gravano's, they'll get monthly stipends of as much as $2,000 for 18 months or until the government decides their lives are stabilized. They might get small grants to start businesses. They might get money for second-hand cars. But within two years, most of them are severed from the program and fade into the relative comfort of anonymity.

But some can't seem to stay there. They find it easier to change their identities, their homes, their jobs and even their families, than they do their bad habits. It's violence and havoc no matter where they live.

Murderers released
The 1983 audit of the Witness Security Program concluded that protected witnesses have been involved in numerous crimes after they were freed.

"Auditors identified seven witnesses who have been convicted of murder, one who is currently charged with murder, and indications that four others were charged with murders. Other serious crimes committed by witnesses include arson, robbery and assorted drug violations,'' the audit says.

A second audit done in 1992 repeated those findings and added figures for 1989. One-fifth of all witnesses admitted to the program that year committed crimes while they were in the program. But the audit also observed that witness program officials refused to provide sufficient information for the study to be complete.

According to research done by the Post-Gazette, at least 20 murders have been committed by protected witnesses, including those by Marion Pruett.

Pruett was a drug addict and twice-convicted bank robber who was imprisoned in the penitentiary in Atlanta. In 1978 he told officials there that he witnessed the murder of his cellmate, then testified against the supposed killer. For his testimony, he gained freedom and admission to the witness protection program. Years later, he told police officers in New Mexico his story was a lie; that he actually did the killing, then pinned it on someone else in an elaborate plan to get into the program.

By that time, Pruett had been relocated to Albuquerque with his common-law wife. Sometime in the next two years, he beat her to death with a hammer, chopped her body in pieces, then took it to a remote desert where he doused it with gasoline and burned it.

Then he went on a cross-country rampage, robbing banks in Bridgeville, Pa., and several other cities. He also killed at least five more people before he was caught in 1981.

One of the outgrowths of Pruett's crimes was a hearing before a subcommittee of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee where several congressmen called for the end of the witness program.

Then Associate Attorney General Rudolph Guiliani, who used the program later while he was U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, said he was considering a "strict quota system" to only use the program in "one or two really major cases" a year.

And he vowed to improve the program so that the Pruett experience would not be repeated.

But a decade later, the program allowed James Red Dog to leave prison and move to a neighborhood in Wilmington, Del.

Red Dog had been convicted of four killings before he snitched on two other prisoners who he said helped him murder another inmate at the U.S. Penitentiary at Marion, Ill.

Red Dog told authorities that through his wife, he had smuggled poison into the prison to kill a thieving inmate who snorted the substance, thinking it was cocaine.

He named two inmates who, he said, helped him in the murder.

For his testimony, Red Dog's wife was admitted into the witness program, and he followed her to Delaware shortly after his release from a protected witness prison.

Four years later, in 1991, Red Dog attacked a Wilmington resident, nearly beheading him with a hunting knife during a violent rage. Then he abducted his victim's mother and raped her repeatedly until she escaped.

In 1993, Red Dog was executed in Delaware.

The grief Red Dog caused was a high price to pay for what the federal prosecutors got: The two inmates Red Dog testified against to gain his release from prison were both acquitted of the crime.

Keeping the money
In order to do combat in the war on drugs, the federal government often seizes the money and property of drug dealers. But if the drug dealers snitch on others and enter the Witness Security Program, they often get their freedom and keep their millions.

When the U.S. government was preparing its racketeering case against former Panamanian president Manuel Noriega, it offered witness protection to some of the biggest drug dealers in the world.

In exchange for their testimony against Noriega, at least 20 members of drug cartels around the world received drastically reduced or token prison sentences and were released, along with their drug money. One is Max Mermelstein, a Miami dealer who told prosecutors Noriega had taken payoffs from the Medellin cartel in exchange for allowing smugglers to use his country as a way-station for drug shipments. He served less than two years despite admitting to smuggling 56 tons of cocaine worth $12.5 billion into this country. He is now free and living under an assumed name with his massive wealth.

Floyd Carlton Canceres, a former Noriega pilot and Panamanian military official, admitted to smuggling 1,000 kilograms of cocaine worth $25 million and faced a sentence of life plus 145 years in prison until he helped prosecutors with Noriega. He was released after only two years in a protected witness unit, followed by three years of parole. The government paid $211,681 for Carlton's living expenses, which included the purchase of a car. His deal included relocation of more than 20 members of his family, including a baby sitter.

Carlton was not required to forfeit any of his wealth or property he owns in Panama.

Even while protected witnesses are still in prison, they lead lives considerably more comfortable than do other prisoners. In fact, the witness units are unlike any other prisons in the world.

In ordinary prisons, telephone calls are usually limited to a few a week, and collect calls are the only ones allowed.

But in the protected witness units, the prisoners get free use of federal telephones and can call anywhere in the world at taxpayers' expense. Protected witnesses in favor with prosecutors get unlimited access to the phones.

In addition, they are permitted to use their own money to buy food, appliances, jewelry, athletic equipment, and just about anything from any place that will deliver.

"I ate lobster, crab meat, we even roasted a pig once,'' said George E. Taylor Jr., who spent almost six years in the protected witness units.

Each inmate is provided with a color television with cable that includes pay-per-view so they can watch programming ranging from prize fights to pornographic movies.

In addition, all of the protected witnesses interviewed for these reports say illegal drugs or prescribed mind-altering drugs are easy to get in the unit.

Two systems of justice
Once outside of prison, protected witnesses seem to fall into two categories: The powerful, who are given what they were promised --a new name, a new home, a new life. And the low-level snitches, whose relationship with the witness program ends abruptly after they've given up what they know. Big shots and highfliers while they're telling their secrets, they find themselves suddenly out there alone, without a net. Among this group are those who complain that they've been lied to by the same dealmakers who have turned them into snitches.

George Taylor is one who felt abandoned. A former drug dealer, armed robber and massage parlor operator, he actually did more time in prison because he snitched than if he would have kept his mouth shut and simply served out his robbery sentence. After setting up several drug dealers, he was transferred into the witness protection program, a move which caused him to miss so many parole hearings that he served almost two years more than his minimum sentence.

For his cooperation, Taylor said, he was to get a new identity, relocated and given seed money to forge a new life. But on his release date at the Federal Correctional Institution at Phoenix, the government changed the plans.

Instead of being set up with an anonymous life in a new home, Taylor was handed a plane ticket and $30 and shown the prison door.

He said the change of heart occurred when officials learned that he planned to publicly discuss the program.

He has since been repeatedly threatened with revocation of his parole. Recently, he was ordered back to Missouri by parole officials, despite the government's own assessment that more than 40 people want to harm him.

Since he was freed last June, his home was burglarized by someone who seemed to be only interested in records and he was held by two deputy U.S. marshals for about six hours. He has taped conversations with his Missouri parole agent who said federal officials have been in constant contact with her about his status.

The government actions have increased his resolve.

"I would never, ever, rat again.''

In conversations with his parole officer, federal officials depict Taylor as a vengeful liar. During the time they were using his information, however, Taylor passed repeated government-administered polygraph tests and the information he provided stood up.

But he and nearly everyone interviewed about the program say it has become a bastion of liars who fabricate stories to trade for their freedom.

William Koopman, an associate of the mob in Buffalo, N.Y., admitted to being involved in seven murders but volunteered to testify against many of his friends in exchange for a five-year prison sentence. In one gangland murder case early in 1990, Koopman named another mobster as the man who put a bullet into the head of a small-time crook. The man was convicted of murder and Koopman was freed, as promised.

But in 1995, seven months after he was freed, Koopman was called to testify in a post-trial hearing on the murder case. This time, he said he was the shooter.

"You pulled the trigger?'' the attorney asked.


"You lied about that at trial, didn't you?''

"In trial, yeah,'' Koopman said.

That startling revelation has fueled appeals in at least 10 cases that Koopman testified in.

But what dumbfounded the defense lawyers is that after Koopman revealed he lied, several local, state and federal officials admitted they had known or suspected for years that Koopman was the actual shooter in that case.

Nevertheless, prosecutors on state and federal levels still used Koopman's testimony repeatedly during that time. And despite clear language in his agreement with the witness program that if he was caught lying he could be prosecuted, Koopman has not been charged with murder, perjury or anything else. Today, after five years in a protected witness prison, Koopman is free.

Federal officials haven't commented, but Frank Clark, assistant district attorney in Buffalo, said there are no plans to charge Koopman.

According to protected witnesses who were interviewed for this story, Koopman's story is not unusual. The witness protection system is littered with liars, they say, who know that damaging testimony --true or not --can be their ticket to freedom.

Because the backbone of the Witness Security Program is its promise to protect witnesses by keeping their whereabouts secret, the $53 million-a-year program operates without much public scrutiny.

Only three complete audits have been conducted in more than 20 years. The congressional committee charged with oversight of the program had its last public hearing in 1982.

Witnesses in the program who are unhappy with the results say their criticism is often muzzled by the government.

In 1991, James Cardinali, a New York City mobster who testified under the program, stood in front of the U.S. District Courthouse in Albuquerque with a lunch-board adorned with a bull's eye around his neck. He said the government had abandoned him, marking him for death after he was used as a witness.

Like other witnesses who have made brief forays into the public eye while they are in the program, Cardinali disappeared only a few days later, after he was jailed on a parole violation for leaving his assigned state without permission to go to Washington, D.C., to appear on Larry King's CNN talk show. His whereabouts and his fate are unknown.