by Richard Kadrey

So you've decided to rat out your underworld buddies. Assuming that they've been involved in anything that would interest law enforcement, you'll have to consider the very real possibility that, for revenge, or just to stop your testimony, your soon-to-be-ex-friends might want to shoot you in the head. Your best option at this point might be to commit suicide—on paper. Give up your identity and get a new one, courtesy of the U.S. Government. It's not easy, but it's better than the alternative.

Popularly dubbed the Witness Protection Program, but technically known as Witness Security, the program has relocated and renamed over 15,000 people since it began in 1970. Witness Security is run by the U.S. Marshals Service, the oldest federal law enforcement agency in the country. Started in 1789, the Marshals Service is the no-frills, hands-on end of federal policing. Whereas the FBI mostly does investigations, the Marshals Service is the bunch that usually goes in and does the dirty, dangerous work of dragging the bad guys out of their hideout. ("Unless there are TV cameras around. Then the FBI does it themselves," drawls a spokesman from the Marshals office in Virginia.) They also transport prisoners in their own mini airline and, among other tasks, move federal defendants to and from court. On CNN, when you see Ted Kaczynski or Timothy McVeigh being hustled in and out of vans by guys in blue windbreakers, you're seeing a gaggle of Marshals Service boys in action.

But back to your ass, which is now on the line.... Do you have what it takes to be a protected witness for the Feds?

First a few preliminaries: Don't even dream of asking for witness protection and relocation if your case isn't violent or big. Really big. If talking to the local cops is going to get the thirteen-year-old crackheads on the corner mad enough to shoot you, well, tough. Witness Protection does have a branch that offers some protection to smaller-time snitches, but unless you can give testimony that is going to put some significant criminal away for a while, no one is going to offer you a new identity, so don't bother asking. But let's assume you do have the info—and you probably do, you scumbag (the vast majority of the people in the program are criminals—innocent people don't generally get up close and personal with major crimes or gangsters), so how do you actually get into the program?

Usually, the U.S. Attorney, together with the Criminal Division at the Department of Justice, will offer it to you, along with full or partial immunity from prosecution for the crimes you're agreeing to talk about in court. If you don't want to be part of the program, no one will force it on you. And if you refuse, you can change your mind later. One relocated witness we talked to, let's call him Hootie, turned down the program twice before giving in. He was living on the West Coast at the time and didn't want to be away from his infant daughter, who was living with his ex-wife. As the case he was connected to began to grow to international proportions, bringing in international arms dealers and the Mob—far beyond what he'd expected—he grew scared enough to allow himself to be disappeared. And that's exactly what happened. One day he was there, and the next he wasn't. No calls to family or friends. No canceling the newspaper or returning the cable TV box. He was given an envelope of travel money, the name of a local contact, a plane ticket, and he was gone.

"He was given an envelope of travel money,
the name of a local contact,
a plane ticket,
and he was gone."

Hootie was a single guy, so while his adjustment to life in a new state was hard, it was easier than the adjustment for witnesses with families. Of the 15,000 people who've gone through the witness security program, just over a third of them are the criminal witnesses. The rest are spouses and children. If you're giving up your cronies and are a family type, you'll probably end up getting sent temporarily to a Marshals Service "neutral site." In movie talk, that's a "safe house." It's sort of like a hotel, only everyone there is either a Fed, a crook, or the unhappy family of a crook. These last two groups don't matter much since you'll never see them. The Marshals are very careful about that. No one sees anyone else once they're in the program. Only a handful of people in the Marshals Service ever know the identity of any relocated witness. In Hootie's case, he was only aware of three people who knew his identity: his Marshals Service contact and two local legal officials in the Midwestern city where he was relocated.

Because he had no serious criminal record, and because his crimes were all nonviolent, Hootie had a pretty easy time going through the program; his psychological testing was minimal. Other witness protection candidates are more thoroughly screened. When the program started in 1970, it was to protect witnesses who were willing to talk about the Mafia. The first witness to go under was Joe Valachi, who gave up all his mob pals and became a sure candidate for a hit. The only way the government could make its case was to get an insider to talk. Dealing with an insider, however, meant playing footsie with a major felon, probably a murderer. As the program expanded and these criminals were being funneled through the program and back out into straight society, they were screened to see just how violent they really were, and if they could fit into a world of fixed addresses and nine-to-five jobs.

All this costs money. Back when Valachi blew his fellow wiseguys' cover, the budget for witness security and relocation was under a million dollars. It's now risen to $53 million a year. But it's worth it to the Feds. The program has been successful. It's returned an 89% conviction rate.

The biggest change in the program over the years, aside from the money involved, is that the main employer of the criminals who come in for protection is no longer traditional Mob-style organized crime, but the drug biz. These criminals require multiple psych tests from the Marshals Service. Whereas the old-style Mafia killers were mostly professionals, drug felons often have a long history of violence, starting out at an early age. This makes them a much bigger risk to the community to which they've moved. Even there, though, the Marshals Service has a good record. The recidivism rate for their criminal clients is under 23%, less than half that of those who serve time in prison.

What can you expect once you're settled in your new home? You get to choose your new name—one that's "ethnically appropriate," please. And you can ask for job counseling to help ease you into the straight world. If you're really nervous or very high-profile, you might get some plastic surgery before setting foot outside. Officially, the Marshals Service doesn't pay for plastic surgery, but the Service will arrange for surgery if you can pay for it. According to Hootie, however, "Depending on who you are and what information you have, you can cut a deal for anything."

"So you have a new home,
maybe a new face,
and you're living on a government stipend."

So you have a new home, maybe a new face, and you're living on a government stipend. Hootie was getting around $2,000 a month. This is in addition to the money he made at the straight job he secured. The job, of course, came after he had acquired sufficient documentation in his new name, which is much simpler than you might think. New birth certificates are a pain (the bureau that issues them is notoriously reluctant to give out false ones), but getting a Social Security number is a breeze. Once you've got that you can get a driver's license. With your photo ID in hand, you can open a bank account and get a job. After that, it's no problem getting, say, a gas company or department store credit card.

Don't any of the credit companies care that your name doesn't exist in anyone's records? The truth is, if you have no records, you're not going to be listed anywhere as a deadbeat. "No history is good history," Hootie says.

The one bit of ID you probably won't find it easy to get is a passport. Having gone to all that trouble of setting you up in your new life, paying you what amounts to a salary to hang around and wait to testify in court (the average cost of a relocation is $150,000 for a family of three), the Marshals Service doesn't want you going anywhere it can't keep tabs on you. That's one reason so many witnesses get relocated to the Midwest. It's land-locked, and it's harder to get in your car and run for the border.

Once you're set up in your new life, things may go smoothly, but it will be a long time before they're easy. In the two years Hootie was in the program, he made only a few friends and had one unsuccessful romance. When all your relationships are based on lies—you have to maintain the carefully constructed cover story you've worked out with your Marshals Service contact—it's hard to be natural and spontaneous with people. Witnesses frequently feel guilty for lying, and stiff and awkward trying to maintain their cover. It can take years to become comfortable answering to a new name and using a new signature (you get to practice signing your name a lot while waiting for your new ID documents). For some people, in the end, it's just not worth it.

Talk! Hootie left the Witness Security program after two years, although he was strongly advised against this. Losing all contact with his daughter was too much for him. Also, many of the principals from Hootie's case had left the country or died. He's playing the odds, as you might have to, if you're going to be a stoolie. Hootie's back in the city he originally fled from; he's using his original name; he has a new girlfriend who knows about his past; and he was recently awarded joint-custody of his daughter. He has a straight job, new and old friends, and is saving for a down payment on a house. And he never goes anywhere without a loaded .45.

So you're thinking about ratting on your underworld buddies? Chances are, if you get far enough to ask the question, you don't have much of a choice. Just keep your head down and don't forget your cover story.   </end>

illos by jorja

Some details in this story have been changed in order to protect the identity of our sources.