Have you ever wondered what happens when someone enters the US Witness Protection Program? It’s a kind of secret club we all know exists but don’t know much about. Here are 25 US Witness Protection Program Secrets You’ve Always Wanted To Know.
The official name for witness protection is United States Federal Witness Protection Program. It's also known as the Witness Security Program, commonly called WITSEC.
When someone agrees to enter WITSEC, United States Marshals immediately go to their home and pick them up. If the witness is in custody, they still show up and take their family, since historically the mob would murder the families of witnesses to keep them from testifying. Family, if you're wondering, can include not just spouse and kids, but also parents, siblings, and mistresses.
After being picked up by U.S. Marshals, WITSEC participants and their families are taken away to orientation, somewhere near DC. For years, they had issues with training participants in the program on what was expected of them, so they have a witness safe-house/orientation center near DC that can hold up to six families and withstand bomb blasts. No word on how many mistresses in addition to the six families though.
Many people who are relocated by WITSEC are able to keep their first names. In some cases, however, they keep their last name but not their first.
Since the purpose of Witness Protection is to keep witnesses safe in order to testify, witnesses often have to be snuck into their trial in creative ways - mail trucks, helicopters, and even fishing boats as well as decoys have been used.
Being in the Witness Protection Program can be really stressful, particularly with children. Not only are you taking them away from everything except their parents, there's the constant fear that they may let their old identities and lives, or where they used to live, slip out.
The only thing you keep in the Program are the people in your family. Everything else is new, such as your social security number and birth certificate. Even school records are duplicated under new names and new places. Some parents have even asked for their children's past grades to be improved. They were denied.
People who have been relocated due to WITSEC have to lie to any future spouses or partners about their past. "Honey, I'd never kiss another woman, but I have this whole separate life in my past, and no, my parents aren't really dead" is kind of a hard sell if they ever find out. On the other hand, if you're a lying cheating jerkface, claiming you're in Witness Protection would be a good cover...
Witnesses are not usually (usually) asked to alter their appearance in any way or wear disguises.
Unprotected witnesses are not only less safe, but they're more likely to end up not testifying. WITSEC has a conviction rate of 89%. Over 10,000 criminals have been convicted with testimony from protected witnesses.
It's not a never ending money pit. While the government will get you set up and started, you're expected to get a job and provide for yourself (which is kind of confusing considering the government prints currency at will). In the past, people have asked for extravagant things - like breast implants for their wives - but those days are long past.
Most likely you're already a criminal when you enter Witness Protection. A very small percentage of people relocated by WITSEC are actually free of wrongdoing, despite what Hollywood would lead us to believe.
On that note, if "former" criminals are dropped off by WITSEC with a new identify, local police aren't informed. That seems like a categorically bad idea. In fact, in 1995 a Portland, ME, a Police Chief named Michael Chitwood complained about Maine being a "dumping ground" for criminals in the WITSEC program.
It's actually really really hard on the witnesses sometimes, particularly the few who aren't criminals to begin with. Participants in witness protection programs have stated things like, "I felt like I was being punished more than the person who harmed me," and "I'm in identity limbo."
If you have joint custody of your children and are put into witness protection, many times you have to get the approval of the other parent before taking your children into protection. How horrifying is that? "Well Other Parent, my life and the kid's lives are in danger; do we have your permission to go into hiding?" "I don't know Other Parent, I'll think about it and let you know Tuesday."
WITSEC was founded in 1970 by a man named Gerald Shur, an attorney at the Department of Justice, with the intent being to convince people to testify against the Mob and protect them. Much like in the movies, in real life, testifying against members of organized crime is very bad for your heath. The Justice Department was having trouble getting people to agree to testify through the 1960's, and eventually WITSEC was born.
While relocation sites are ultimately up to the US Marshals, sometimes families are given an option of where they'd like to relocate to. Then again, sometimes you're stuck in a crappy motel for a few weeks while having few to no updates. It all depends on the case. Some people claim it's given them a new chance at life, and some people claim it's hell.
You can be in WITSEC and be in prison, but it's an upgraded prison complete with a nice cable TV package and basically anything you can get via mail order. They also usually get unlimited phone calls, which prisoners have used to set up...crime...on the outside..
While many criminals out of prison who enter Witness Protection do commit more crimes under their new identity, astoundingly, over 80% *don't*. They literally turn over a new leaf. That gives WITSEC a better criminal rehabilitation record than prisons.
You still have to pay your debts. While it's really really difficult for creditors to find you, you're still responsible for meeting financial obligations. But think of it this way: that home, those cars, all that stuff you're never ever going to see again can be liquidated to cover the student loans you've been deferring for a decade! Yay?
The Marshal's Service reserves the right to boot anyone out of Witness Protection if they commit a crime under their new identity. They don't always, obviously, but they can. So people who commit crimes while in WITSEC may not just be playing fast and loose with the rules, but gambling their families and mistresses' lives.
Despite giving you a new identity, and a new social security number, the government doesn't give witnesses a fake credit history, so doing things like buying a car - with their shiny new, no credit history social security number - is nearly impossible.
Some families are moved multiple times due to various threats, how well they adjust, and how important the case they're testifying on is. Imagine how hard it is to adjust to ONE new identity, then make it your third new identity in two years.
You can leave Protection whenever you want, but it's generally not a good idea. People have died that way. The threat is real to these people. If it weren't, there wouldn't be witness protection.
Over 18,000 witnesses and their families have participated in WITSEC, and NONE of them have been harmed while in protection, according to the U.S. Marshal's service.
Photos: Feature Image: Shutterstock, 25. Walt Stoneburner via flickr, CC BY 2.0, 23. Ben Oberg via flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, 17. Richard Bartz, Munich Makro Freak, Canis lupus familiaris disguised, CC BY-SA 2.5, 16. Chris Potter, 3D Judges Gavel, CC BY 2.0, 3. Drew Stephens via flickr, CC BY-SA2.0