Breaking Omerta: Before Gerald Shur, Godfather of the U.S. Federal Witness-Protection Program, Took Action, Those Courageous Enough to Break the Code of Silence That Sheltered Organized Crime Faced the Risk of Being Killed for Testifying. (Cover Story)

Article excerpt

The 1961 black-and-white photograph of the crime scene showed the naked body of a woman sprawled across a bloody tile floor. The killer had cut her from throat to navel, ripped out her intestines and piled them alongside her exposed breast. She had been an FBI informant, gathering evidence to bring down a drug operation of a La Cosa Nostra crime syndicate.

"It was like an autopsy" recalls Gerald Shur, who retired in 1994 as a senior associate director of the Office of Enforcement Operations in the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington. "They sent a message in that woman's death," he tells INSIGHT: Spill your guts to the feds and we'll spill your guts all over you.

Shur's file cabinet was full of similar pictures detailing horrible deaths, including a photo of an informant who had worn a wire for the FBI. His killers jammed wires through his skull.

These photographs of murdered informants helped kickstart the federal witness security and protection program known as WITSEC. According to Shur and investigative journalist Pete Earley in their recently published book, WITSEC: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program, the murdered woman described above was the 25th government informant killed in a span of five years in the early 1960s.

The rising number of dead witnesses was a terrifying prospect as Shur faced the daunting task of persuading potential informants to challenge the mob. The omerta, or code of silence, was strictly enforced and had become every prosecutor's worst nightmare. In the past prosecutors had relied on blackmail and other intimidation to obtain witness cooperation. In one New York case, detectives grabbed a witness by the ankles and prepared to drop him off a tall building. Other witnesses proved eager to cooperate rather than take an "elevator ride" with a ham-fisted detective.

Then, in 1961, Shur began offering deals that seemed too good to turn down --relocation and protection for life. For witnesses who accepted, it meant a change of names, being cut off from family, missing funerals and weddings, and such startup inconveniences as having no credit.

Today, WITSEC has two programs. One is set up in the federal prisons and another, which became a model for both local jurisdictions and countries worldwide, is on the outside. These programs now are being hailed as potential weapons in the war on terrorism.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has lifted some of the burden from the Janet Reno era, when prosecutors were under orders not to promise immunity for criminal activity. That decision stemmed from a scandal in the Boston field office of the FBI that resulted when it was revealed that two informants under federal protection had murdered at least 10 rival gang members. Reno's orders shut the door on dozens of terrified informants and may explain why WITSEC dropped from 500 witnesses in 1976 to less than 100 in 2000. Ashcroft's recent decision to drop Reno's rules is expected to open the door wider for dozens of informants who have had cold feet until now.

During Shur's 34-year tenure, the WITSEC program protected 6,416 witnesses and 14,468 of their dependents, including spouses, children, boyfriends and mistresses. The program protected and rehabilitated witnesses who helped to topple every major crime family in every major city, convicting some 10,000 gangsters. WITSEC meanwhile was under the scrutiny of at least a half-dozen congressional audits and many more by the Justice Department, each time surviving the efforts to kill it by its rash of critics.

Known as the father of the program, Shur wrote nearly all the rules and shaped its philosophy, the essence of which is: Testify and it buys a ticket to a new lease on life. Indeed, that was both the promise and the reality during Shur's tenure because no WITSEC witness was killed--at least none of the almost 21,000 witnesses and relatives who followed the rules, Shur insists. …


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