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.

9 Facial Reconstructions of Famous Historical Figures

A facial reconstruction of King Richard III unveiled by the Richard III Society in 2013
A facial reconstruction of King Richard III unveiled by the Richard III Society in 2013
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Why look at a painting of a historical figure when you can come face to face with one? Forensic facial reconstruction using scans of skeletal remains allows researchers to create 3D models of the face through a combination of science, history, and artistic interpretation. The results may be somewhat subjective, but they’re fascinating anyway. Here are nine facial reconstructions of famous people.

1. Richard III

In 2012, King Richard III’s skeleton was found below a parking lot in Leicester, England, where in 1485 he was hurriedly buried after dying in battle. A reconstruction (above) shows a young man, only 32 years old, with a gentle, approachable face. It’s a far cry from the child-murdering villain portrayed by Shakespeare and other writers. One thing they said does seem accurate, however: The skeleton had a curved spine from scoliosis, suggesting that Richard’s humpback may have been real.

2. Bach

J.S. Bach’s bust has sat on innumerable pianos for centuries, but he only posed for one portrait in his lifetime. So this reconstruction of his face—which was taken from a bronze cast of his skull—offers an interesting glimpse into the man beneath the 18th century wig. You get the same thick neck, underbite, and stern brow you see in the painting, but the reconstruction’s friendly, confused stare lacks the soul of the real man … and his music, for that matter.

3. Shakespeare

Apparently, no one knows anything about Shakespeare for sure—his hair color, his sexual orientation, how he spelled his name, whether he liked his wife, etc. Some people aren’t even sure whether he wrote his plays or not. So this rendering, taken from a death mask found in Germany, is bound to be controversial. But if it is Shakespeare, it’s pretty intriguing. It shows a man who suffered from cancer and had a sad, soulful face.

4. Dante

Maybe it’s because The Divine Comedy dealt with the ugliness of sin that Dante Alighieri is usually depicted as unattractive, with a pointy chin, buggy eyes, and enormous hooked nose. But a reconstruction done from measurements of the skull taken in 1921—the only time the remains have been out of the crypt—reveals a much more attractive Dante. The face has a rounder chin, pleasant eyes, and smaller nose than previously thought. It’s a face with character.

5. King Henri IV

The mummified head of France’s King Henri IV was lost after the French Revolution until a few years ago, when it showed up in a tax collector’s attic. In his day, Henri was beloved by everyone except the Catholic fundamentalists who murdered him in 1610. The hard-living king looks a bit old for his 56 years, but there’s a twinkle in his eyes. What the model cannot show, however, was how much the king stank—apparently he smelled of ”garlic, feet and armpits.”

6. Cleopatra’s Sister

Cleopatra hated her half-sister Arsinoe IV so much she had her dragged out of the temple of Artemis and murdered. In 2013, researchers said they had discovered what may be Arisone’s body, based on the shape of the tomb, carbon dating, and other factors. The resulting facial reconstruction shows a petite teenager of European and African blood. And yeah, maybe this is closer to what Arsinoe would look like if she were trapped in The Sims, but since Cleopatra’s remains are long gone, this may be the closest we get to knowing what she looked like.

7. King Tut

King Tutankhamun, whose famous sarcophagus has traveled far more than the “boy king” did in his 19-year lifetime, had buckteeth, a receding chin, and a slim nose, according to 3D renderings of his mummy. His weird skull shape is just within range of normal and was probably genetic—his father, Akhenaten, had a similarly shaped head. Tut’s body also had a broken leg, indicating he may have died from falling off a horse or chariot.

8. Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus, who challenged the belief that the sun revolved around the earth, died in 1543 at age 70. When his body was found in 2006 in a Polish church and confirmed by matching DNA to strands of his hair left in a book, the Polish police used their forensic laboratory to make this portrait. They made sure to include Copernicus’s broken nose and the scar above his left eye. Who knew that the Father of Astronomy looked so much like the actor James Cromwell?

9. Santa Claus

The remains of St. Nicholas, i.e. Santa Claus, have been in a church in Bari, Italy, since they were stolen from Turkey in 1087. This reproduction, taken from measurements of his skull, reveal that St. Nicholas had a small body—he was only 5’6”—and a huge, masculine head, with a square jaw and strong muscles in the neck. He also had a broken nose, like someone had beaten him up. This is consistent with accounts of St. Nicholas from the time: It turns out that Santa Claus had quite a temper.

A version of this list was first published in 2013.

11 Fun Facts About Them!

Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Warner Home Video

In the 1950s, Elvis was king, hula hooping was all the rage, and movie screens across America were overrun with giant arthropods. Back then, Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and other “big bug” films starring colossal insects or arachnids enjoyed a surprising amount of popularity. What kicked off this creepy-crawly craze? An eerie blockbuster whose impossible premise reflected widespread anxieties about the emerging atomic age. Grab a Geiger counter and let’s explore 1954's Them!.

1. Them!'s primary scriptwriter once worked for General Douglas MacArthur.

When World War II broke out, the knowledge Ted Sherdeman had gained from his career as a radio producer was put to good use by Uncle Sam, landing him a position as a radio communications advisor to General MacArthur. However, the fiery conclusion of the war left Sherdeman with a lifelong disdain for nuclear weapons. In an interview he revealed that upon hearing about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and started to throw up."

Shifting his focus from radio to motion pictures, Sherdeman later joined Warned Bros. as a staff producer. One day he was given a screenplay that really made his eyes bug out. George Worthing Yates, best known for his work on the Lone Ranger serials, had decided to take a stab at science fiction and penned an original script about giant, irradiated ants attacking New York City. "The idea appealed to me very much,” Sherdeman told Cinefantastique, "because, aside from man, ants are the only creatures in the world that plan to wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at that time.” (His statement about animal combat is debatable: chimpanzee gangs will also take organized, warlike measures in order to annex their rivals’ territories.)

Although he loved the basic concept, Sherdeman felt that the script needed something more. Screenwriter Russell S. Hughes was asked to punch up the script, but died of a heart attack after completing the first 50 pages. With some help from director Gordon Douglas, Sherdeman took it upon himself to finish the screenplay. Thus, Them! was born.

2. Two main ants were built for the movie.

Them! brought its spineless villains to life using a combination of animatronics and puppetry, courtesy of an effects artist by the name of Dick Smith. He constructed two fully functional mechanical ants for the production, with the first of these being a 12-foot monster filled with gears, levers, motors, and pulleys. Operating the big bug was a job that required a small army of technicians who’d pull sophisticated cables to control the ant’s limbs off-camera. These guys worked in close proximity and often crashed into each other as a result, prompting Douglas to call them “a comedy team.”

The big insect mainly appears in long shots, and for close-ups, Smith built the front three quarters of a second large-scale ant and mounted it onto a camera crane. During scenes that required swarms of ants, smaller, non-motorized models were used. Blowing wind machines moved the little units’ heads around in a lifelike manner.

3. Them! features the Wilhelm Scream.

Fifty-nine minutes in, the ants board a ship and one of them grabs a sailor, who unleashes the so-called "Wilhelm Scream." You can also hear it when James Whitmore’s character is killed, and the sound bite rings out once again during the movie’s climax. Them! was among the first movies to reuse this distinctive holler, which was originally recorded three years earlier for the 1951 western Distant Drums. Since then, it’s become something of an inside joke for sound recording specialists. The scream has appeared in Titanic (1997), Toy Story (1995), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Batman Returns (1992), the Star Wars saga (1977-present), all three The Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003), and countless other films.

4. Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance.

In one brief scene, future Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy plays an Army man who receives a message about an alleged “ant-shaped UFO” sighting over Texas. He then proceeds to poke fun at the Lone Star State, because, as everybody knows, insectile space vessels are highly illogical.

5. Many different sounds were combined to produce the screeching ant cries.

Throughout the movie, the monsters announce their presence with a haunting wail. Douglas’s team created this unforgettable shriek by mixing assorted noises, including bird whistles, which were artificially pitched up by sound technicians.

6. Sandy Descher had to sniff a mystery liquid during her signature scene.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Them! has a deliberate pace and the massive insects don’t make an onscreen appearance until the half hour mark. Douglas took credit for this restrained approach, saying, “I told Ted, let’s tease [the audience] a little bit before you see the ant. Let’s build up to it."

So instead of showing off the big bugs, the opening scene follows a little girl as she wanders through the New Mexican desert, listlessly clutching her favorite doll. That stunning performance was delivered by child actress Sandy Descher. Later, in one of the most effective title drop scenes ever orchestrated, a vial of formic acid is held under her character’s nose. Suddenly recognizing the aroma, the traumatized youngster screams “Them! Them!” Descher never found out what sort of liquid was really sloshing around in that container.

“They used something that did smell quite strange. It wasn’t ammonia, it was something else,” she told an interviewer. Still, the mysterious brew had a beneficial effect on her performance. “They tried to create something different and it helped me a lot with that particular scene,” Descher said.

7. Them! was originally going to be filmed in 3D and in color.

To hear Douglas tell it, the insect models looked a lot scarier in person. “I put green and red soap bubbles in the eyes,” he once stated. “The ants were purple, slimy things. Their bodies were wet down with Vaseline. They scared the bejeezus out of you.” For better or for worse, though, audiences never got the chance to savor the bugs’ color scheme.

At first, Warner Bros. had planned on shooting the movie in color. Furthermore, to help Them! compete with Universal’s brand-new, three-dimensional monster movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon, the studio strongly considered using 3D cameras. But in the end, the higher-ups at Warner Bros. didn’t supply Douglas with the money he’d need to shoot it in this manner. Shortly before production started on Them!, the budget was greatly reduced, forcing the use of two-dimensional, black and white film.

8. The setting of the climactic scene was changes—twice.

Yates envisioned the final battle playing out in New York City’s world-famous subway tunnels. Hughes moved the action westward, conjuring up an epic showdown between human soldiers and the last surviving ants at a Santa Monica amusement park. Finally, for both artistic and budgetary reasons, Sherdeman set the big finale in the sewers of Los Angeles.

9. Warner Bros. encouraged theaters to use Them! as a military recruitment tool.

The film’s official pressbook advised theater managers who were screening Them!& to contact their nearest Armed Forces recruitment offices. “Since civil defense in the face of an emergency figures in the picture, make the most of it by inviting [a] local agency to set up a recruiting booth in the lobby,” the filmmakers advised. Also, the document suggested that movie houses post signs reading: “What would you do if (name of city) were attacked by THEM?! Prepare for any danger by enlisting in Civil Defense today!”

10. The movie was a surprise hit.

Studio head Jack L. Warner predicted that Them!, with its far-fetched plot, wouldn’t fare well at the box office. So imagine his surprise when it raked in more than $2.2 million—enough to make the picture one of the studio's highest-grossing films of 1954.

11. Them! landed Fess Parker the role of TV's Davy Crockett.

When Walt Disney went to see Them!, he had a specific objective in mind: Scout a potential Davy Crockett. At the time, Disney was developing a new television series that would chronicle the life and times of the iconic frontiersman, and James Arness, who plays an FBI agent in Them!, was on the short list of candidates for the role. Yet as the sci-fi thriller unfolded, it was actor Fess Parker who grabbed Disney’s attention. Director Gordon Douglas had hired Parker to portray the pilot who ends up in a psych ward after an aerial encounter with a gargantuan flying ant. And while his character only appears in one scene, the performance impressed Disney so much that the struggling actor was soon cast as Crockett.

By the Texan’s own admission, his good fortune may’ve been the product of bargain hunting. “Walt probably asked, ‘How much would Arness cost?’ and then ‘This fellow [Parker], we ought to be able to get him real economical,” Parker once said.

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