Famous Cases from the Witness Protection Program

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Since it began in 1971, the Witness Protection Program has provided new identities for more than 18,000 people, though most of them are not the witnesses themselves but their family members. It’s by no means a perfect system, with some children that are entered in the program later saying that they have trouble with identity issues. In legal terms it’s devastatingly effective. If the testimony of witnesses granted protection by US Marshals through the program is used, the conviction rate is said to be as high as 89%. 

Counterintuitively, some people that have accepted the service which changes their identities and is intended to hide them from the world have gone on to a degree of fame. Some gained their fame through doing something good, some for doing something horrible, and some got a degree of glamour from it. Other people didn’t quite get in, and some of them paid a terrible price. All of them have interesting stories. 

10. Henry Hill

In 1980, it looked like this former mobster’s glory days were behind him. For roughly 25 years he had been associated with the Lucchese crime family; his crimes included beating lots of people up (including a brother of an FBI agent, which came with a 10 year sentence, made easier by corrupt guards), burying bodies, the largest cash heist in US history ($5.8 million) in 1978, sports fixing, and large amounts of drug dealing. When he decided to flip in 1980, his testimony would lead to 50 convictions. 

Hill was discharged from Federal Witness Protection in 1987, having already been busted for burglary and drunk driving. In 1987 his autobiography Wiseguy was published and went on to become a bestseller. Said book was adapted into Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas, widely regarded as one of the best films of the 1990s. Despite that considerable success that would lead to him being a regular on The Howard Stern Show, he still devoted time to getting the certification to become a drug counselor. He struggled with his own addiction problems pretty much until he passed away in 2012.  

While the movie based on Henry Hill’s experience that everyone remembers is Goodfellas, there was actually another film that came out several months earlier in 1990, with the same source material, called My Blue Heaven, written by Nora Ephron after she got to know Hill personally. It starred Steve Martin and Rick Moranis, making the fact it was a comedy unsurprising. Even by the standards of the time it was a lightweight, fluffy comedy, with Steve Martin playing the gangster based on Henry Hill as a cartoon character. That would make quite a double feature.   

9. Sammy the Bull

Samuel Gravano has been touched on elsewhere on TopTenz, but there was much more to him than just his part in taking down John Gotti. Not all of it was good, particularly the 19 murders for which he pleaded guilty. In exchange for his testimony, which would take down a reported 38 mafia members, he received a sentence of only five years. After serving his time, he moved to Arizona and was surprisingly outspoken about mocking the very mobsters that had very strong reason to kill him.  

Eight years after the deal that put him in the Witness Protection Program, in 2000 Sammy the Bull was back in the spotlight for running a new drug ring. In Tempe, Arizona, he was the boss of a 50 person group that was making roughly $500,000 a week selling ecstasy. Gravano plead guilty and served 17 years. Potentially he was relatively lucky: For the months leading up to his arrest, it was alleged that there was an attempt to kill him with a bomb by John Gotti’s vengeful brother.     

8. Clarence Crouch

Born in 1940 in Shreveport, Louisiana and almost immediately given up for adoption, Clarence Crouch grew up to be the kind of teenager who almost killed a guy for taking his girlfriend to a dance. By 1968 he was the vice president of the Cleveland chapter of the notorious Hells Angels gang, just in time for gang wars that would leave his group known as the “Dirty Thirty.” This was at a time when the Angels supposedly had a “Roll Bones Rule” that required an Angel to kill someone if they wanted to be a full member. Over the next 13 years the wars with gangs like the Breed would include gang members being gunned down at funerals. There were even cases of toddlers being caught in high profile suitcase bomb detonations. 

In 1981, of his own volition, Crouch went into the Witness Protection Program, though his wife took his kids and left for Florida, needing to be hunted down by law enforcement before she would cooperate. Crouch turned out to be one of the least effective members of the program ever, as all three of the trials where his testimony was used ended in acquittal. Juries and judges weren’t too eager to trust the word of a confessed murderer, though in Crouch’s defense in at least one of the instances it turned out the judge was bribed. He passed away in 2013, his obituary using his alias. 

7. Marion Pruett

If Crouch was an ineffective client for Witness Protection, then Marion Pruett’s story was something of a black eye for the program. In 1979, Pruett was released from federal prison and given an $800-a-month stipend for testifying regarding the throat cutting of an inmate who had himself testified against a gang. Under his new identity, Charles Pearson, he would commit crimes that would utterly overshadow the bank robberies that had landed Pruett in prison in the first place.

In 1981, he began a spree that began with his wife near Albuquerque, New Mexico. Then he robbed a loan office in Jackson, Mississippi, taking loan officer Peggy Lowe hostage. He then shot convenience store clerk Bobbie Jean Robbertson in Fort Smith, Arkansas. His final killings would be clerks Anthony Taitt and James Balderson in Fort Collins, Colorado. Through it all he was a rather distinctive figure, considering he had both a noteworthy limp and a glass eye. Of all things, it was speeding in Texas that resulted in his arrest. According to the New York Times he blamed a $4,000 a week cocaine habit for the crimes that drew the horror of a nation. He was executed in 1999

6. Noel Harder

We return to the subject of the Hells Angels, though in this instance in Saskatchewan, Canada. In the early 2000s, Noel Harder claimed that he got into drug dealing because his brother was already in the business when he died and all of his brother’s clients kept calling. However lucrative it was for him in the short term, by 2004 he was convicted and sentenced to six years. He got construction work after his release, but was back to dealing by 2013, using his construction HQ for his deals. He turned informant in 2014, and his subsequent testimony led to 20 convictions and the seizure of $8 million of various narcotics over the next three years. 

According to Harder, the deal turned extremely sour for him. He claims that he had been offered $300,000 compensation for his testimony in addition to witness protection, which presumably would have made him an unreliable witness. It took him over a year and a half for him and his family to receive their new identities, which would have been roughly three times the federal maximum. On top of that, he was kicked out of the program for continuing his drug use. That was no small thing considering that the Hells Angels had such a sufficient grudge toward him that, reportedly, a $2 million bounty was placed on his head. Harder claimed that he’d already been caught by an Angel and only escaped when he convinced his assailant he had a gun. 


5. Frank Capri

Not many mobsters get credited with devastating two celebrity-themed restaurant chains. Frank Giola Jr. was set on that path in 1999. Before that he’d been, like Henry Hill, associated with the Lucchese crime family. His largely waived crimes included assault, drug dealing, and murder. At least his cooperation with the authorities was credited with contributing to the conviction of 70 known mobsters. He was sent to Arizona, and his new identity of Frank Capri was a real estate developer/entrepreneur.

First, Capri opened a string of 20 Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grills. Within five years only one was still open. There were so many broken leases, unpaid developers, and other bad business practices that he was ordered to pay $65 million in damages. That was step one. 

Next, Capri tried to license the name of the country band Rascal Flatts to create a chain of 17 restaurants nationwide, the first one successfully opening in Stamford, Connecticut in August 2017. That one restaurant closed by August 2018, losing $1.1 million and leaving an alleged $1.1 million in unpaid rent. Rascal Flatts took back their naming rights in exasperation. Who knows which country singer he’ll try to spin a restaurant chain off next. 

4. Frazier Glenn Miller Jr. 

Frazier Miller was born in 1942 and went from being a veteran of the Vietnam War to the head of a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina called the Carolina Knights. In 1987, he was discovered in his trailer while hiding from a criminal contempt charge with hand grenades and automatic rifles. He testified against his fellow white supremacists in exchange for a five year sentence and new identity of Frazier Glenn Cross, but did not change his racial views in the slightest in the following decades. In 2006 he ran for US House and in 2010 for US Senate in Missouri, having formed a group called the White Power Party. The US Marshals could not inform the public of his criminal background because their policy states that they cannot volunteer who is under Witness Protection. In April 2014, he took the next step and took a gun to the Kansas City Jewish Community Center and Village Shalom retirement center. His victims were William Corporon, Corporon’s grandson Reat Underwood, and Terri LaManno. 

In court Miller never denied that he was guilty of the crimes. He claimed he had a emphysema diagnosis and wanted to kill Jews before his passing, though NBC News noted that none of his victims were Jewish. When he was found guilty, he performed a Nazi salute. He is currently on death row. 

3. John Franzese Jr. 

Criminals who go into Witness Protection are particularly despised by criminal organizations in some cases because they’re willing to portray their ostensible friends and partners. So imagine how much John Franzese Jr. was hated in some circles when he testified against his own father in 2010, having spent four years in the program by then. The father, John “Sonny” Franzese, was so well known that he had public profiles in publications like Newsday back when he was first sent to prison in 1965. Not for nothing was John Franzese Jr. haunted by visions of how he’d be shot in his bed. 

Even by the standards of mob members, Franzese Jr. did not live a particularly glamorous life. Born in 1961, he spent 20 years in the mob. By 1985, he developed a cocaine and then a crack addiction that left him ruined. He would sell his car for parts to get hits. He took a wine bottle from a dumpster and finished it, even after noticing it was full of ants. By the time he testified against his father, he’d also contracted HIV. He moved to Indianapolis and set down such strong roots there that he forfeited his stipend to avoid having to leave. By all indications, he’s settled down to as quiet of a life as someone in his position could expect to lead.    

2. Mako

It sounds like some morbid variation on the old HBO program Taxicab Confessions, but in 2013, an El Salvadorian FBI informant going by the alias Mako started posing as a cab driver for the MS-13 gang and other gang members, and tried to extract confessions from the passengers for a concealed camera. Over the course of three years worth of trips, according to his profile in the Boston Globe, he got people to confess to stabbing teenagers, confess to a plan to stab a teenager that Mako helped the North Shore Gang Task Force prevent, infiltrated Boston and Virginia gang meetings, and cleared 10 homicides in the Boston area alone. Supposedly his recordings were the key to the largest MS-13 takedown in US history with 61 convictions. In addition to avoiding deportation, 17 of his relatives in El Salvador were granted entrance to the US and Federal Witness Protection, all of which cost about $500,000 total, which would seem like a bit of a bargain considering that Fox News Entertainment reported that the average murder conviction costs $17 million.  

But it turned out Mako’s cooperation had an extreme dark side. He was supposedly involved in planning robberies and involved with a stabbing. As a result, he was thrown out of Witness Protection, but it was uncertain whether to deport him or not since it was known that MS-13 was aware of his identity and put a hit out on him. As of February 2018, it was unknown whether any more of his testimony could be used. 

1. Daniel Hernandez, a.k.a. Tekashi 6ix9ine

For many young people, the first time they heard about the Witness Protection Program was when word got out that this Platinum-selling rapper might join it. Born in 1996, by 2018 the former gang member had collaborated with rappers ranging from Nicki Minaj to Kanye West. In November of that year he was busted on racketeering charges. Hernandez had previously pleaded guilty to being involved in a sexually explicit video with a minor and a separate incident of disorderly conduct with a police officer (reduced from an assault charge.) For the racketeering charge, he pleaded guilty and testified against two gang members in exchange for a reduced sentence. 

This left Hernandez in a very awkward position. The mother of his child was clear that they were in danger as a result of his testimony. He also had facial tattoos that were very distinctive which would need to be removed if he were to change identities, something he was loathe to do. Despite all the pressure, ultimately Tekashi 6ix9ine decided not to join Witness Protection, saying that in his experience personal security was preferable. Considering that by November 2019 rumors were swirling that he had signed a multi-million dollar record contract from in jail, it seems like his life will only become more tumultuous. 


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