12 Secrets of the Witness Protection Program

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IStock

Developed by Justice Department employee Gerald Shur and beginning in 1971, the Federal Witness Protection Program—or Witness Security Program (WITSEC)—has provided safe harbor for over 18,000 federal witnesses and their families in exchange for damning testimony. It was WITSEC and the promise of a government-subsidized hiding place that convinced several “made” men of the mafia to turn their backs on organized crime and help prosecutors convict numerous leaders, from John Gotti to several members of the Lucchese family.

Protecting whistleblowers from the dangerous criminals they implicate doesn’t come cheap. By some estimates, the government spends upwards of $10 million annually [PDF] to keep the WITSEC program going. But witnesses with information so provocative their life is at risk make for strong cases: Trials involving WITSEC have an 89 percent conviction rate.

The U.S. Marshals assigned with forging new identities for these individuals are notoriously guarded and rarely speak on the record about program specifics. But that hasn’t stopped bits of information from leaking out. With author Pete Earley, Shur co-wrote a book, WITSEC: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program, on his career; over the years, various WITSEC enlistees have spoken to media about the stress of assuming new identities. Here’s as much detail about the program you’re going to get without finding yourself in a considerable amount of trouble.

1. THEY HAVE ORIENTATION.

For years, WITSEC was plagued by a haphazard method of educating enrollees on what was required of them and what they might expect from being relocated and assigned a new name. In some cases, witnesses waited months for new birth certificates or social security numbers. To help streamline the process, the Marshals instituted a clearinghouse in 1988 for recent inductees in the Washington, D.C. area. The WITSEC Safesite and Orientation Center can house up to six families at a time; visitors are driven there in vehicles with blacked-out windows and locked in separate rooms to ensure they don’t see one another. If trouble happens to follow, the site can also withstand bomb blasts. Owing to the trauma of upending their lives, psychological counseling is available. Within two weeks, they’re shown video of their new location.

2. THEY’RE MOSTLY CRIMINALS.

The movie trope of an innocent man or woman caught up in criminal crossfire or as an unwilling party to illegal dealings is a rare event in the real world. Shur estimated that less than 5 percent of relocated witnesses are completely free of any wrongdoing; the vast majority are career hoods looking to be absolved of charges for their own activities and protected from retribution. Different sources put the recidivism rate for WITSEC members at anywhere between 10 and 20 percent. In 1995, Portland police chief Michael Chitwood complained that Maine had become a “dumping ground” for criminals in the program: Local law enforcement is not informed when a criminal has been dropped off in their territory and often fear they can bring an entire network of illegal activity into an area.

3. THEY SOMETIMES KEEP THEIR FIRST NAME.

Shur—who ran the program for more than 25 years while employed by the Department of Justice’s Organized Crime and Racketeering Section in Washington and continued as a consultant after retirement—disclosed in WITSEC that relocated witnesses were not usually given totally unfamiliar new names. To help them acclimate to their new identity, Shur usually allowed them to keep the same first name and even their initials. In addition to reacting when someone addressed them, witnesses could also catch themselves signing their old name before it was too late. Children learning their new last names are sometimes told to practice writing it.

4. PARENTS ASK FOR BETTER GRADES FOR THEIR KIDS.

WITSEC is responsible for assigning new social security numbers, driver’s licenses, and birth certificates to qualifying witnesses and their families. If a witness has children, it means school records will need to be modified so educators can see grades from earlier enrollment. Initially, a Washington area school agreed to help by getting redacted records and transferring grades and teacher notes into a new file. While the program usually keeps the same marks, Shur recalled that some parents asked him to improve their children's grades. He refused.

5. THEY USED TO GET GREAT PERKS—LIKE BREAST IMPLANTS.

In the 1970s and 1980s, WITSEC was having unprecedented success damaging the infrastructure of the mafia. Major players were testifying against bosses knowing they could start over somewhere else. Initially, the government was so keen on their continued participation—trials could go on for years—that they indulged some unnecessary expenses. Former mob hitman Aladena Fratianno requested (and got) the United States to pay for his wife’s breast implants, facelift, and dental work. Another had a psychologist backing his claim of poor self-esteem issues, and the government bought him a penile implant.

6. DIVORCED SPOUSES HAD KIDS HIDDEN FROM THEM.

In a landmark case that had far-reaching effects on WITSEC, Thomas Leonhard went public in the early 1970s with a story that was any parent’s worst nightmare. Because his ex-wife was married to a protected government witness, Leonhard (who had visitation rights) was not allowed to see their daughter on the grounds that her location and new identity would be compromised. When he filed for and was granted full custody, WITSEC officials still refused to disclose her location. The ensuing publicity led to an amendment in 1984 to WITSEC protocol that needs to take joint custody into account when relocating children—although ex-spouses still found it difficult to see their child via a circuitous airplane route under an alias. One father wondered whether he would ever be able to see his daughter’s graduation or wedding when she got older.

A non-program parent with visitation rights must now agree to have the child relocated. If they refuse and win full custody, the child will not be allowed to remain in their new identity.

7. THE MONEY DOESN’T LAST FOREVER.

WITSEC typically pays for witness housing in their new region, new furnishings, and a “salary” based on the cost of living in any given area. According to Shur, that amount was dependent on local economics and the size of the family. On average, members receive roughly $60,000 from the government before they’re expected to land jobs and become self-supporting within six months. At the height of the organized crime offensive, the Justice Department paid out as much as $1 million to witnesses who were testifying over long periods of time.

8. CRIMINALS HAVE USED IT TO COMMIT MORE CRIMES.

Law enforcement officials are quick to clarify that WITSEC is not a rehabilitation program: When career criminals who have never earned an honest living and have no job skills enter the workforce, their thoughts can—and often do—turn to illegal activity knowing their status will make it harder to face any consequences. Shur noted that a handful of witnesses used one new identity to run up significant debt, then told Marshals they’d been spotted by a rival and feared retribution. With another new name and city, they were able to flee creditors successfully—and collect more cost-of-living money from WITSEC. At one point, 32 witnesses had collectively racked up $7.3 million in unsecured debt, leading officials to begin threatening disclosure of their identities to creditors if the money wasn’t repaid.

9. THEY HAVE TO LIE TO NEW SPOUSES.

Getting married as a protected witness means having to do the one thing no partner should be expected to do: lie. All the time. WITSEC members are told not to divulge their prior identity to new spouses in case the relationship ever turns sour and the secret is revealed out of spite. When infamous mobster Henry Hill was in the program, he married Sherry Anders in 1981. Anders had no idea Hill, who was going by the name “Martin Lewis,” had seen more than his share of dead bodies—and happened to still be married under his real name, making her an unwitting party to bigamy. (The couple soon split up.)

10. STATES HAVE THEIR OWN PROGRAMS.

WITSEC is a federal program focused on making big cases against criminal enterprises with an accompanying credible threat to a witness’s life. But for many eyewitnesses who have observed gang killings or other street-level crime, it’s not likely the government is going to intervene. Instead, several regions have programs that offer relocation during and in the months immediately following trials. In Detroit, Project Safeguard provides lodging and food through private funding; Baltimore is considering a similar program, with officials hoping Congress will approve legislative spending for smaller-scale protection efforts.

11. PRISONERS CAN HAVE PERKS, TOO.

While WITSEC can offer suspended sentences to cooperating witnesses, some will still have to serve time in prison. To help incentivize these individuals, WITSEC can arrange for privileges far beyond the norm for an inmate. In 1996, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette revealed protected witnesses in custody enjoyed live lobsters and pig roasts via an anonymous ordering system at a commissary; they were also granted unlimited phone calls. Some prisoners used the latter to set up criminal activities or run telephonic credit card scams on the outside.

12. YOU CAN LEAVE ANYTIME—BUT YOU SHOULD THINK TWICE.

The U.S. Marshals are proud to say that not a single person has been hurt or killed while under their protection in the WITSEC program. Unfortunately, not all witnesses take the threat on their lives seriously. Some have left the program of their own volition or have broken the rules about returning to high-risk areas. Shur recalled the case of Daniel LaPolla, a witness who decided to ignore the program's warnings and return home for a funeral. His home was rigged to blow to pieces as soon as he turned the doorknob. “It blew up in his face,” Shur said.

All images courtesy of iStock.

Every New Movie, TV Series, and Special Coming to Netflix in October

Charles Baker as Skinny Pete in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019).
Charles Baker as Skinny Pete in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019).
Courtesy of Netflix

It has been six years since Breaking Bad fans last caught a glimpse of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), as he sped away from Albuquerque and the men who held him captive there for so long (Walter White included, at least in a metaphorical sense). While we've longed to see what happened next, and what Jesse might be up to today, that it would ever become a reality seemed unlikely ... until earlier this year, when Vince Gilligan confirmed that he had secretly shot a Breaking Bad movie titled El Camino, that will catch us up on the man formerly known as Cap'n Cook.

In addition to that October 11th premiere, Netflix has plenty of other movies, shows, and specials coming your way in October.

October 1

Carmen Sandiego: Season 2
Nikki Glaser: Bangin’
93 days
A.M.I.
Along Came a Spider
Bad Boys
Bad Boys II
Blow
Bring It On, Ghost: Season 1
Charlie’s Angels
Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle
Cheese in the Trap: Season 1
Chicago Typewriter: Season 1
Crash
Exit Wounds
Good Burger
Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay
Honey 2
House of the Witch
Lagos Real Fake Life
Men in Black II
Moms at War
No Reservations
Ocean’s Thirteen
Ocean’s Twelve
One Direction: This Is Us
Payday
Rugrats in Paris: The Movie
Scream 2
Senna
Signal: Season 1
Sin City
Sinister Circle
Supergirl
Superman Returns
Surf’s Up
The Bucket List
The Flintstones
The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas
The Island
The Pursuit of Happyness
The Rugrats Movie
The Time Traveler’s Wife
Tomorrow with You: Season 1
Trainspotting
Troy
Tunnel: Season 1
Unaccompanied Minors
Walking Out

October 2

Living Undocumented
Ready to Mingle (Solteras)
Rotten: Season 2

October 3

Seis Manos

October 4

Big Mouth: Season 3
Creeped Out: Season 2
In the Tall Grass
Peaky Blinders: Season 5
Raising Dion
Super Monsters: Season 3
Super Monsters: Vida’s First Halloween

October 5

Legend Quest: Masters of Myth

October 7

Match! Tennis Juniors
The Water Diviner

October 8

Deon Cole: Cole Hearted
The Spooky Tale of Captain Underpants Hack-a-ween

October 9

After
Rhythm + Flow

October 10

Schitt’s Creek: Season 5
Ultramarine Magmell

October 11

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie
The Forest of Love
Fractured
Haunted: Season 2
Insatiable: Season 2
La influencia
Plan Coeur: Season 2
The Awakenings of Motti Wolenbruch
YooHoo to the Rescue: Season 2

October 12

Banlieusards

October 15

Dark Crimes

October 16

Ghosts of Sugar Land
Sinister 2

October 17

The Karate Kid
The Unlisted

October 18

The Yard (Avlu)
Baby: Season 2
Eli
Interior Design Masters
The House of Flowers: Season 2
The Laundromat
Living with Yourself
MeatEater: Season 8
Mighty Little Bheem: Diwali
Seventeen
Spirit Riding Free: Pony Tales Collection 2
Tell Me Who I Am
Toon: Seasons 1-2
Unnatural Selection
Upstarts

October 19

Men in Black

October 21

Echo in the Canyon
Free Fire

October 22

Jenny Slate: Stage Fright

October 23

Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner
Dancing with the Birds
Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy

October 24

Daybreak
Revenge of Pontianak

October 25

A Tale of Love and Darkness
Assimilate
Brigada Costa del Sol
Brotherhood
Dolemite Is My Name
Greenhouse Academy: Season 3
The Kominsky Method: Season 2
Monzon
Nailed It! France (C’est du gâteau!)
Nailed It! Spain (Niquelao!)
Prank Encounters
Rattlesnake
It Takes a Lunatic

October 28

A 3 Minute Hug
Little Miss Sumo
Shine On with Reese: Season 1

October 29

Arsenio Hall: Smart & Classy

October 30

Flavorful Origins: Yunnan Cuisine

October 31

Kengan Ashura: Part ll
Nowhere Man
Raging Bull

10 Intriguing Friends Fan Theories

Warner Bros. Television/Getty Images
Warner Bros. Television/Getty Images

Friends is a classic sitcom about twentysomethings navigating life, love, and work in New York City. Or at least that’s one theory about the beloved sitcom, which premiered on September 22, 1994. Here’s another: Friends is a glimpse inside a mental ward, where six disturbed patients are working through their personality disorders. In the 25 years since it made its debut, Friends has inspired a ton of wild fan theories on Reddit and Twitter. Here are a few of the strangest (and be careful: Mr. Heckles’s murderer is still at large).

1. Rachel dreamed the whole thing.

In the summer of 2017, this photo of the Friends season four DVD box ignited a fan frenzy. The image on the box shows the titular pals snoozing side by side. Ross, Phoebe, Monica, Chandler, and Joey all have their eyes shut, but Rachel—resting right in the middle—is wide awake and looking directly at the camera. Why is she the only one with her eyes open? Some fans suggested Rachel was plotting something sinister, or secretly very “woke.” But plenty more insisted it was proof the whole show was Rachel’s dream. According to one Twitter fan, Rachel fell into an anxiety-fueled dream the night before her wedding to Barry and imagined her own group of hip New York friends to cope with her frustration and dread. Except she woke up to reality the next morning, as shown on the DVD cover, where she’s surrounded by her dream friends.

2. Phoebe hallucinated the show.

Another popular theory suggests that Friends was all in Phoebe’s head—only this take is much darker. The basic premise is that Phoebe never got off the streets. She was a lonely, homeless woman with a meth addiction who peered into the window of Central Perk one day. She noticed five friends laughing over coffee, and imagined herself as part of the gang. In this fantasy, her pals didn’t always get her weird sense of humor, but they loved her anyway. In reality, the twentysomethings in the window were wondering why that “crazy lady” was staring at them. This theory gained so much traction that a journalist asked Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman about it at a television festival. She quickly threw water on the whole thing. “That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard,” Kauffman replied. “That’s a terrible theory. That’s insane. Someone needs a life, that’s all I’m saying."

3. It was one long promotion for Starbucks.

The cast of 'Friends'
Warner Bros. Television/Getty Images

According to one manic Facebook rant, Friends was not a sitcom at all. It was actually a 10-year marketing ploy, designed to make Starbucks the new go-to destination for young people. Why else do the characters spend so much time in a coffee shop? True, the shop is not called Starbucks, but the subliminal evidence lies in Rachel’s last name (Green, like the Starbucks company color) and hair (styled like the mermaid in the Starbucks logo). Then there’s Ross and Monica’s last name, Geller, which is close to the German word gellen. It means “to yell,” just like the Starbucks baristas calling out customer names. The case only gets flimsier from there, but if you really want to read about how Chandler and Moby Dick are connected, you can dive down that particular rabbit hole here.

4. Ross lost custody of Ben because he was a bad dad.

Ross’s son Ben arrives in the very first season of Friends, in the aptly titled episode “The One with the Birth.” He’s a constant character for several seasons, but as the show goes on, Ross seems to spend less and less time with his kid. Ben disappears after the eighth season, and never meets his half-sister Emma onscreen. There’s one explanation for this drop-off: Ross lost custody of his son due to increasingly disturbing behavior.

The blog What Would Bale Do lays out a bunch of examples: Ross sleeps with his students, tries to hook up with his cousin, and asks a self-defense instructor for help scaring his female friends. He’s also generally pretty jealous and possessive. According to this theory, Ross’s ex-wife Carol hit a breaking point and took full custody of their son, which is why Ben stops coming around his dad’s apartment in the later seasons.

5. Mr. Heckles was murdered.

Rachel and Monica’s mean old neighbor dies of natural causes in season 2—or at least that’s what they want you to think. By one Redditor’s account, Mr. Heckles was killed in cold blood. Moments before he dies, Mr. Heckles shows up at Monica and Rachel’s door, complaining that their noise is disturbing his birds. (He does not have birds.) Monica says they’ll try to keep it down and as Mr. Heckles leaves, he says he’s going to rejoin his “dinner party.” Minutes later, he’s dead. Ergo, his dinner party guest killed him. Of course, the likelier explanation is that Mr. Heckles was a crazy old man who wasn’t even having a dinner party. But where’s the fun in that?

6. There's a reason why the gang always got that same table at Central Perk.

The cast of 'Friends' chats with talk show host Conan O'Brien
Warner Bros. Television/Getty Images

How did the gang manage to snag the coveted center couch at Central Perk every single time? Simple: Gunther reserved it for them. It was all part of his ongoing campaign to win Rachel’s affections, and it explains why the group never had to fight for seating space. Well, except that one time.

7. There's a Parks & Recreation crossover.

In “The One With All the Candy,” Rachel insists she doesn’t sleep with guys on the first date, only for her friends to immediately call her out. Monica rattles off three names: Matt Wire, Mark Lynn, and Ben Wyatt. Could she be talking about the same Ben Wyatt from Parks and Recreation? According to Reddit, their ages check out. Ben would’ve been 26 at the time of the episode, making him a perfectly acceptable one-night stand for 29-year-old Rachel. But how does Leslie Knope feel about this?

8. Monica was the product of an extramarital affair.

Ross and Monica’s mom doesn’t even try to hide her favoritism. Judy Geller thinks Ross is a genius and Monica is, well, trying. (But could be trying harder.) One bonkers (and since-deleted) fan theory suggests Judy’s preference stems from a family secret: At some point in her marriage to Jack Geller, she had an affair, one she could never forget because it spawned Monica. Judy’s shame over this tryst is what causes her to lash out at Monica and praise Ross, her one 'legitimate' child.

9. There's all in a psych ward.

David Schwimmer, Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow, and Matt Leblanc in 'Friends.'
Getty Images

What if Central Perk wasn’t a coffee shop at all, but rather the cafeteria at a mental institution? As one theory goes, all six main characters are suffering from personality disorders. They’re confined to a facility for treatment, and can only shuffle between their rooms (i.e. their “apartments”) and the cafeteria (i.e. “Central Perk”). This situation also explains why the group is so hostile toward new people. They’re not actually teasing Monica’s new boyfriend; they’re attacking anyone who tries to take one of the friends out of the mental hospital.

10. Joey really wanted some pancakes.

This very silly—but very solid—fan theory is centered on Joey’s love of food. In “The One With Ross’s Library Book,” Joey has a one-night stand with a woman named Erin. He doesn’t want to see her again, and asks Rachel to break the news to her over pancakes. Apparently Chandler used to do this when he lived in the apartment. He’d even save extra pancakes for Joey. Rachel refuses to be a part of this, but once she’s left alone with Erin, she feels bad and offers to cook. Things escalate over the episode and pretty soon, Joey is the one who’s too clingy for Erin. Rachel has to tell him and, feeling bad yet again, she offers pancakes. Reddit claims this was all just a plot for pancakes. It kind of adds up: Joey can’t cook but likes to eat, and he has enough soap opera money to pay an actor (Erin) to play a part in this conspiracy. So he cons his roommate into making pancakes, twice, in a ruse that’s both delicious and diabolical (and, yes, a little bit silly).

This story has been updated for 2019.

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