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12 Secrets of the Witness Protection Program

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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.

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Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
12 Surprising Facts About Robin Williams
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA

Robin Williams had a larger-than-life personality. On screen and on stage, he embodied what he referred to as “hyper-comedy.” Offscreen, he was involved in humanitarian causes and raised three children—Zak, Zelda, and Cody. On July 16, HBO debuts the documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, directed by Marina Zenovich. The film chronicles his rise on the L.A. and San Francisco stand-up comedy scenes during the 1970s, to his more dramatic roles in the 1980s and '90s in award-winning films like Dead Poets Society; Good Morning, Vietnam; Awakenings; The Fisher King; and Good Will Hunting. The film also focuses on August 11, 2014, the date of his untimely death. Here are 12 surprising facts about the beloved entertainer.

1. ROBIN WILLIAMS GOT HIS START AT A COMEDY WORKSHOP INSIDE A CHURCH.

A still from 'Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind' (2018)
HBO

After leaving Juilliard, Robin Williams found himself back in his hometown of San Francisco, but he couldn’t find work as an actor. Then he saw something for a comedy workshop in a church and decided to give it a shot. “So I went to this workshop in the basement of a Lutheran church, and it was stand-up comedy, so you don’t get to improvise with others, but I started off doing, ostensibly, it was just like improvising but solo," he told NPR. "And then I started to realize, ‘Oh.’ [I started] building an act from there."

2. HE FORMED A FRIENDSHIP WITH KOKO THE GORILLA.

In 2001, Williams visited Koko the gorilla, who passed away in June, at The Gorilla Foundation in Northern California. Her caregivers had shown her one of his movies, and she seemed to recognize him. Koko repeatedly signed for Williams to tickle her. “We shared something extraordinary: laughter,” Williams said of the encounter. On the day Williams died, The Foundation shared the news with Koko and reported that she fell into sadness.

3. FOR A TIME, HE WAS A MIME IN CENTRAL PARK.

In 1974, photographer Daniel Sorine captured photos of two mimes in New York's Central Park. As it turned out, one of the mimes was Williams, who was attending Juilliard at the time. “What attracted me to Robin Williams and his fellow mime, Todd Oppenheimer, was an unusual amount of intensity, personality, and physical fluidity,” Sorine said. In 1991, Williams revisited the craft by playing Mime Jerry in Bobcat Goldthwait’s film Shakes the Clown. In the movie, Williams hilariously leads a how-to class in mime.

4. HE TRIED TO GET LYDIA FROM MRS. DOUBTFIRE BACK IN SCHOOL.

As a teen, Lisa Jakub played Robin Williams’s daughter Lydia Hillard in Mrs. Doubtfire. “When I was 14 years old, I went on location to film Mrs. Doubtfire for five months, and my high school was not happy,” Jakub wrote on her blog. “My job meant an increased workload for teachers, and they were not equipped to handle a ‘non-traditional’ student. So, during filming, they kicked me out.”

Sensing Jakub’s distress over the situation, Williams typed a letter and sent it to her school. “A student of her caliber and talent should be encouraged to go out in the world and learn through her work,” he wrote. “She should also be encouraged to return to the classroom when she’s done to share those experiences and motivate her classmates to soar to their own higher achievements … she is an asset to any classroom.”

Apparently, the school framed the letter but didn’t allow Jakub to return. “But here’s what matters from that story—Robin stood up for me,” Jakub wrote. “I was only 14, but I had already seen that I was in an industry that was full of back-stabbing. And it was entirely clear that Robin had my back.”

5. HE WASN’T PRODUCERS' FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY MORK ON MORK & MINDY.

Anson Williams, Marion Ross, and Don Most told The Hallmark Channel that a different actor was originally hired to play Mork for the February 1978 Happy Days episode “My Favorite Orkan,” which introduced the alien character to the world. “Mork & Mindy was like the worst script in the history of Happy Days. It was unreadable, it was so bad,” Anson Williams said. “So they hire some guy for Mork—bad actor, bad part.” The actor quit, and producer Garry Marshall came to the set and asked: “Does anyone know a funny Martian?” They hired Williams to play Mork, and from September 1978 to May 1982, Williams co-headlined the spinoff Mork & Mindy for four seasons.

6. HE “RISKED” A ROLE IN AN OFF-BROADWAY PLAY.

Actor Robin Williams poses for a portrait during the 35th Annual People's Choice Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 7, 2009 in Los Angeles, California
Michael Caulfield, Getty Images for PCA

In 1988, Williams made his professional stage debut as Estragon in the Mike Nichols-directed Waiting for Godot, which also starred Steve Martin and F. Murray Abraham. The play was held off-Broadway at Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. The New York Times asked Williams if he felt the show was a career risk, and he responded with: “Risk! Of never working on the stage again! Oh, no! You’re ruined! It’s like you're ruined socially in Tustin,” a town in Orange County, California. “If there’s risk, you can’t think about it,” he said, “or you’ll never be able to do the play.”

Williams had to restrain himself and not improvise during his performance. “You can do physical things,” he said, “but you don’t ad lib [Samuel] Beckett, just like you don’t riff Beethoven.” In 1996, Nichols and Williams once again worked together, this time in the movie The Birdcage.

7. HE USHERED IN THE ERA OF CELEBRITY VOICE ACTING.

The 1992 success of Aladdin, in which Williams voiced Genie, led to more celebrities voicing animated characters. According to a 2011 article in The Atlantic, “Less than 20 years ago, voice acting was almost exclusively the realm of voice actors—people specifically trained to provide voices for animated characters. As it turns out, the rise of the celebrity voice actor can be traced to a single film: Disney’s 1992 breakout animated hit Aladdin.” Since then, big names have attached themselves to animated films, from The Lion King to Toy Story to Shrek. Williams continued to do voice acting in animated films, including Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Happy Feet, and Happy Feet 2.

8. HE FORGOT TO THANK HIS MOTHER DURING HIS 1998 OSCAR SPEECH.

In March 1998, Williams won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. In 2011, Williams appeared on The Graham Norton Show, and Norton asked him what it was like to win the award. “For a week it was like, ‘Hey congratulations! Good Will Hunting, way to go,'” Williams said. “Two weeks later: ‘Hey, Mork.’”

Then Williams mentioned how his speech accidentally left out one of the most important people in his life. “I forgot to thank my mother and she was in the audience,” he said. “Even the therapist went, ‘Get out!’ That was rough for the next few years. [Mom voice] ‘You came through here [points to his pants]! How’s the award?’”

9. HE COMFORTED STEVEN SPIELBERG DURING THE FILMING OF SCHINDLER’S LIST.

At this year’s 25th anniversary screening of Schindler’s List, held at the Tribeca Film Festival, director Steven Spielberg shared that Williams—who played Peter Pan in Spielberg’s Hook—would call him and make him laugh. “Robin knew what I was going through, and once a week, Robin would call me on schedule and he would do 15 minutes of stand-up on the phone,” Spielberg said. “I would laugh hysterically, because I had to release so much.”

10. HE HELPED ETHAN HAWKE GET HIS AGENT.

During a June 2018 appearance on The Graham Norton Show, Ethan Hawke recalled how, while working on Dead Poets Society, Williams was hard on him. “I really wanted to be a serious actor,” Hawke said. “I really wanted to be in character, and I really didn’t want to laugh. The more I didn’t laugh, the more insane [Williams] got. He would make fun of me. ‘Oh this one doesn't want to laugh.’ And the more smoke would come out of my ears. He didn’t understand I was trying to do a good job.” Hawke had assumed Williams hated him during filming.

After filming ended, Hawke went back to school, but he received a surprising phone call. It was from Williams’s agent, who—at Williams's suggestion—wanted to sign Hawke. Hawke said he still has the same agent today.

11. HE WAS ALMOST CAST IN MIDNIGHT RUN.

In February 1988, Williams told Rolling Stone how he sometimes still had to audition for roles. “I read for a movie with [Robert] De Niro, [Midnight Run], to be directed by Marty Brest,” Williams said. “I met with them three or four times, and it got real close, it was almost there, and then they went with somebody else. The character was supposed to be an accountant for the Mafia. Charles Grodin got the part. I was craving it. I thought, ‘I can be as funny,’ but they wanted someone obviously more in type. And in the end, he was better for it. But it was rough for me. I had to remind myself, ‘Okay, come on, you’ve got other things.’”

In July 1988, Universal released Midnight Run. Just two years later, Williams finally worked with De Niro, on Awakenings.

12. BILLY CRYSTAL AND WILLIAMS USED TO TALK ON THE PHONE FOR HOURS.

Actors Robin Williams (L) and Billy Crystal pose at the afterparty for the premiere of Columbia Picture's 'RV' on April 23, 2006 in Los Angeles, California
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Starting in 1986, Williams, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg co-hosted HBO’s Comic Relief to raise money for the homeless. Soon after Williams’s death, Crystal went on The View and spoke with Goldberg about his friendship with Williams. “We were like two jazz musicians,” Crystal said. “Late at night I get these calls and we’d go for hours. And we never spoke as ourselves. When it was announced I was coming to Broadway, I had 50 phone messages, in one day, from somebody named Gary, who wanted to be my backstage dresser.”

“Gary” turned out to be Williams.

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind premieres on Monday, July 16 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.

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Walt Disney Pictures
10 Facts About Hocus Pocus
Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

In a 2014 Reddit AMA, Bette Midler said she'd be interested in doing a Hocus Pocus sequel. "You have to go to send in your cards to the Walt Disney company," she said. "The ball's in their court." While you get those cards ready, here are some facts about the original, which arrived in theaters 25 years ago today.

1. THE STORY ORIGINATED AS A BEDTIME STORY.

The story for Hocus Pocus came about after writer David Kirschner invented a bedtime story for his kids. He later wrote the story up and submitted it to Muppet Magazine (why does this not still exist?), where it gained recognition.

2. THE WRITERS USED PROPS TO PITCH IT TO STUDIO EXECUTIVES.

Bette Midler in 'Hocus Pocus' (1993)
Walt Disney Pictures

To pitch the story to Disney, the writers had execs enter a dark room with broomsticks and a vacuum cleaner hanging from the ceiling. They also scattered 15 pounds of candy corn throughout the room in an effort to invoke Halloween nostalgia. It obviously worked!

3. IT WAS NOT AN IMMEDIATE HIT.

Though it’s a cult classic now, Hocus Pocus didn’t do that well when it first came out in 1993, perhaps because it was released in July instead of September or October. Though it didn’t have a terrible opening—$8,125,471, putting it in fourth place at the box office that weekend—it fell to $2,017,688 a few weeks later, and bad reviews from the critics didn’t help matters.

Entertainment Weekly was particularly put off by the movie, calling it a “piece of corny slapstick trash” and saying that “It’s acceptable scary-silly kid fodder that adults will find only mildly insulting. Unless they’re Bette Midler fans. In which case it’s depressing as hell.”

4. BETTE MIDLER LOVES IT.

Bette Midler, by the way, has said that Hocus Pocus is her favorite film out of all of the films she’s ever done. (At least as of 2008.) Thora Birch agreed, recently saying, “The most fun I ever had on a film was Hocus Pocus.”

5. KATHY NAJIMY LOVES IT, TOO.

Midler isn't the only star of the film who isn't immune to its allure: Kathy Najimy has said she watches the movie with her family every year on August 15.

6. IT COULD HAVE STARRED LEONARDO DICAPRIO.

The role of Max was originally offered to Leonardo DiCaprio. He turned it down to do What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

7. SARAH JESSICA PARKER IS RELATED TO A WOMAN FAMOUSLY ACCUSED OF BEING A WITCH.

Had Sarah Jessica Parker known then what she knows now, she might have approached the role of Sarah Sanderson a little differently. When the actress went on the show Who Do You Think You Are to trace her family history, Parker discovered that one of her ancestors was Esther Elwell, one of the women accused of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials. After a young girl said she saw Esther’s “spectre” strangling neighbor Mary Fitch, Elwell was arrested, but escaped going to trial.

8. THORA BIRCH REVISITED THE NEIGHBORHOOD IN AMERICAN BEAUTY.

While the kids are prematurely celebrating victory against the Sanderson sisters after locking them in the kiln, they’re shown talking in front of a house as they walk to a park. The house was later used as the house Thora Birch’s character lived in for American Beauty.

9. THE KIDS WEREN'T HUGE FANS OF THE CATS.

The kids all hated working with the cats. Many different cats were used to represent Binx, and each one served a different purpose—one was good at cuddling with the kids, one would jump on command, etc. Every time a new cat was used, the children would have to coerce the kitty to trust them by using treats and a clicker. They got sick of it.

10. MUCH OF THE ORIGINAL CAST REUNITED FOR A 20TH REUNION.

Most of the cast participated in a 20th anniversary event for D23 (the Disney fan club) members. Sarah Jessica Parker and Bette Midler were not in attendance, but pretty much everyone else was, including Kathy Najimy (Mary Sanderson), Vinessa Shaw (Allison), Omri Katz (Max), Thora Birch (Dani), and Doug Jones (Billy Butcherson). You can watch some of that reunion above.

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