Witsec: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program

Witsec: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program

by Pete Earley

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For decades no law enforcement program has been as cloaked in controversy and mystery as the Federal Witness Protection Program. Now, for the first time, Gerald Shur, the man credited with the creation of WITSEC, teams with acclaimed investigative journalist Pete Earley to tell the inside story of turncoats, crime-fighters, killers, and ordinary human beings caught up in a life-and-death game of deception in the name of justice.

Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program

When the government was losing the war on organized crime in the early 1960s, Gerald Shur, a young attorney in the Justice Department’s Organized Crime and Racketeering Section, urged the department to entice mobsters into breaking their code of silence with promises of protection and relocation. But as high-ranking mob figures came into the program, Shur discovered that keeping his witnesses alive in the face of death threats involved more than eradicating old identities and creating new ones. It also meant cutting off families from their pasts and giving new identities to wives and children, as well as to mob girlfriends and mistresses.

It meant getting late-night phone calls from protected witnesses unable to cope with their new lives. It meant arranging funerals, providing financial support, and in one instance even helping a mobster’s wife get breast implants. And all too often it meant odds that a protected witness would return to what he knew best–crime.

In this book Shur gives a you-are-there account of infamous witnesses, from Joseph Valachi to “Sammy the Bull” Gravano to “Fat Vinnie” Teresa, of the lengths the program goes to to keep its charges safe, and of cases that went very wrong and occasionally even protected those who went on to kill again.

He describes the agony endured by innocent people who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and ended up in a program tailored to criminals. And along with Shur’s war stories, WITSEC draws on the haunting words of one mob wife, who vividly describes her life of lies, secrecy, and loss inside the program.

A powerful true story of the inner workings of one of the most effective and controversial weapons in the war against organized crime and the inner workings of organized crime itself–and more recently against Colombian drug dealers, outlaw motorcycle gang members, white-collar con men, and international terrorists–this book takes us into a tense, dangerous twilight world carefully hidden in plain sight: where the family living next door might not be who they say they are. . .

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307431431
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/18/2009
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 194,385
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

PETE EARLEY is the author of Family of Spies, The Hot House, Super Casino, and Circumstantial Evidence, an Edgar Award winner for Best Fact Crime.

GERALD SHUR, now retired, was the founder and longtime head of WITSEC. Both live near Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt


Gerald Shur was fifteen when he came face-to-face with his first gangster. He was eating cheesecake with his father, Abraham Shur, in Lindy's restaurant in Manhattan when two men sauntered by their table.

"Hello, Abe," one said as they passed.

Shur's father nodded at him.

"Who's that?" his curious son asked.

"They're Johnny Dio's bodyguards," his father replied. "I know them from work." Abe Shur was a dress contractor in New York City's mob-infested garment district. His son recognized the name. John "Johnny Dio" Dioguardi was the mob's "labor expert." In the 1950s and early 1960s he controlled several unions for his Mafia boss, crime-family head Tommy "Three Finger Brown" Lucchese.

Not long after this chance encounter, Shur read in the newspaper that labor columnist Victor Riesel had been attacked as he was leaving Lindy's by a man who threw sulfuric acid into his face, permanently blinding him. Riesel had been writing columns critical of Johnny Dio's cozy relationship with Teamsters union president Jimmy Hoffa, and although Johnny Dio was the prime suspect behind the attack, he was never prosecuted. Witnesses refused to testify, and Abraham Telvi, the punk who threw the acid, was found dead a few days later. He'd been executed on his knees with his hands and legs tied behind him. He had reportedly tried to blackmail Dio.

When Gerald Shur would later think back about his childhood and try to pinpoint what had influenced him most, he would find three common strands: his loving parents, his Jewish faith, and organized crime. From the time he had started reading newspapers, Shur had been captivated by gangsters. No doubt, stories told by his father around the dinner table and by his favorite uncle, who was a successful attorney, fueled his interest. "My father hated the mob and what it did in a community, and he instilled in me at an early age a determination to become involved somehow in the fight against it."

As a child, Shur idolized his father. Abraham Shur was a self-made man. He'd been only six months old in 1903 when he and his three siblings were brought to America by his parents, Russian Jews fleeing persecution. Forced to quit school at age eleven to help support the family, Abe had gone to work delivering dresses for a manufacturer and had gradually moved up the ranks until he became the general manager of the United Popular Dress Manufacturers' Association, a trade group that represented dressmakers in contract negotiations with the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.

The 1930s were perilous times in labor relations, especially in Manhattan's steamy garment district. Mobster Louis Buchalter, better known as Louis Lepke, was at the peak of his power, having first seized control of the tailors' and cutters' unions. From there, he and his mobster pals beat and murdered their way into the bakery drivers' union, where they forced bakers to pay a penny-a-loaf "tax" if they wanted their products delivered fresh to stores. Lepke was one of the first mobsters to realize that if you controlled the trucks that moved goods, you could control an entire industry, and he put that knowledge to work by demanding extortion payments from hundreds of businesses. Police would later estimate that Lepke and his partners were collecting $10 million per year in payoffs from frightened businessmen. It was in this mob-run climate that Abe Shur cut his teeth as a labor negotiator.

Gerald was born in 1933, the second son of Abe and Rose. His mother had been a secretary in a dressmaking company when Abe met and married her in 1927. Most of Shur's earliest childhood memories were set in Far Rockaway, then a small town in Queens, where the family moved in 1935. Gerald would recall happy times there playing games with his older brother, Walter, and helping his father pull weeds from the family's wartime victory garden, an acre patch packed with tomatoes, potatoes, watermelons, beans, and peas. At age nine, he'd gone door to door with his little red wagon, collecting tin cans and cigarette and candy wrappers for recycling to help the war effort. Crime in the city seemed far away.

Those idyllic days ended in 1943, when Rose was stricken with pneumonia and nearly died. After she recovered, she told Abe that she wanted to move back into Manhattan to be closer to her family. The couple rented an apartment on the middle-class Upper West Side, and Gerald, now ten, got a quick lesson in how tough New York streets could be. On his very first day in his new neighborhood, he was confronted by a gang of teenagers.

"What's your religion?" one asked.

"Jewish," he replied.

"Then you're a Christ-killer," the boy shouted. "You need to pay."

The boys beat him until he collapsed, and it took him a week of bed rest to recover. Ironically, the gang's leader was a police sergeant's son. Shur had never before encountered religious prejudice. "From that point on, I absolutely hated intolerance of any kind. My parents had been ahead of their time when it came to teaching us that prejudice was wrong, regardless of whether it had to do with race, religion, or nationality. That beating made me intolerant of intolerance."

Abe and Rose were keenly aware of what was happening in the city and the world, and they expected their sons to stay informed. At night, the family listened to the news on the radio and discussed current events. "No matter what my answer was to a question, my father would reply with 'Why?' When I explained, I got another 'Why?' and the whys continued until I ran out of answers. This was his way of teaching me. Never did my father give his opinion before he received mine, and never did he tell me my opinion was wrong. I was taught to listen to other people's opinions, to consider them thoughtfully, but also to question them vigorously and be ready to defend my own views under similar grilling."

Shur's parents encouraged him to keep a scrapbook of newspaper clippings, and it soon was stuffed with articles about the mob. There was a lot of news to clip. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics (the predecessor to the Drug Enforcement Administration) had caught Lepke smuggling narcotics into the city, and the gangster had gone into hiding. He agreed to surrender to radio newsman Walter Winchell and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover after a fellow mobster assured him that Hoover would seek only a five-year prison sentence. That turned out to be a lie, and Lepke was sentenced to death on a murder charge and executed. Johnny Dio quickly moved in to fill the void left by Lepke, which is why Abe Shur was familiar with Dio's bodyguards. The mobster and his goons were familiar figures in the garment district.

By this time, Abe had quit his labor-negotiating job and opened his own dress-manufacturing shop. Manhattan was the center of America's dress industry; in the late 1940s and early 1950s nearly every dress sold in the country was manufactured there. Competition was brutal. During the day, Abe oversaw his sewing machine operators. In the evenings, he met with jobbers to find work to keep his employees busy. Profit margins were thin, kickbacks common. Whom you knew mattered.

Abe Shur proved to be a shrewd businessman, his dressmaking shop prospered, and the family decided to give Gerald a splashy bar mitzvah. Two hundred guests were invited. Gerald's initials were carved in four-foot-high blocks of ice. There was a five-piece band. All the attention embarrassed him. "I only danced with my mother, and I was more interested in getting a chance to play the band's drum set than all the festivities." During the party, several guests handed him gift envelopes filled with cash. Years later, he would learn that some of the guests were gangsters.

"Why did you invite them?" he'd ask his father.

"They had to be invited," Abe had replied. "They were important people in the industry, and not to invite them would offend them."

Despite his rough start, Shur enjoyed life in the city. He had two best friends, Eddie Schwarzer and Bernie Breslin, and one day he talked them into auditioning with him for Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour, a popular radio and then television show. "Gerry played the drums, and another buddy of ours had an accordion," Breslin recalled. "But Eddie and I didn't even play musical instruments. That didn't stop Gerry. He gave me a set of claves to click together and Eddie a set of maracas, and off we went to this audition. We said we were a band. Of course, we were absolutely terrible and didn't make it."

During another outing, the boys spotted a blind man dressed in a homemade robe, sandals, a flowing cape, and a horned Viking helmet standing on Sixth Avenue at Fifty-fourth Street. "Gerry walked right over and introduced himself," said Breslin. The Viking was Louis T. Hardin, who had legally changed his name to Moondog in 1947 out of respect for a former pet that had howled at the moon. He would become famous as the "Viking of Sixth Avenue" and be quoted by Beat Generation poets. "Gerry used to talk to Moondog all the time," said Breslin. "He didn't dismiss people because of the way they looked or acted, and I remember he was very curious about other people and what made them tick."

During the summers, Shur worked for his father as a turner of collars and belts, which were sewn inside out. His job was to reverse them by using a bent coat hanger to pull them right side out. It was hot, tedious work. He never complained. The job showed him a different side of his father's life. One morning Shur saw a city fire inspector push several crates in front of the fire escape exit. The inspector then called Abe over, showed him the crates, and threatened to fine him for having a blocked exit in violation of city codes. As the younger Shur watched in disbelief, Abe led the fire inspector to a rack of new dresses and let him take two. "I'll be sure to pay you the next time I see you," the inspector said, leaving. That afternoon, two more firemen came in and took dresses. Gerald was confused and angry.

"Why didn't you stop them from stealing those dresses?" he demanded during the ride home that night.

"They would have shut me down, and everybody would be out of work for a few days. Once we reopened, they would harass me, I'd lose our operators, and then I'd be out of business."

The answer didn't satisfy the idealistic teenager. "My father insisted he could do more for the garment industry by being accepted in it and by sometimes conforming rather than by taking the stand that his teenage son would have liked to see him take. I eventually came to believe that he really didn't have a choice. On the one hand, he had to deal with and be friendly to those who would exploit, extort, and kill, and on the other hand, he knew this was wrong yet felt powerless to do anything about it. He was convinced somebody, somebody who cared, could and perhaps someday would do something about it. But it wasn't a job that he could take on."

Shur left home in September 1951 to enter The University of Texas at Austin, determined to become a lawyer. However, his interest in school waned as soon as he spotted Miriam Heifetz, a marketing student from Corpus Christi. He asked her to marry him on their second date. She said no, but a month later agreed. They were seventeen, and neither had a job. They didn't care. Texas law required women to be eighteen and men to be twenty-one to marry. Since neither of them was old enough, they rode a bus to a small town where they mistakenly thought they could fool the marriage clerk. Rebuffed and embarrassed, they returned to Austin, where they found a clerk who wasn't as nosy; and after a brief civil ceremony, a friend dropped them off at the McCandless Hotel for a one-night honeymoon.

They kept their marriage secret and lived apart on campus. Four months later, both sets of parents agreed to let them marry, and in July 1952 they had a wedding ceremony. "We planned on having a small wedding because we were already married, even though no one knew it. Miriam's mother and the rabbi, who had known Miriam from birth, decided otherwise." Shur knew only a few of the several hundred guests. "The rabbi spoke for several minutes about how wonderful Miriam was, covering all of the high points in her life. When it came time to talk about my life, he simply said, 'And here is Gerald. Isn't he lucky to have found Miriam?' I didn't care because I was truly lucky."

Shur did just enough work to pass his undergraduate courses. He was preoccupied by an event that he considered much more important. In 1950, U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver launched a two-year investigation of the mob.

Even though the Mafia had become entrenched as a national syndicate in the United States during Prohibition, no one had ever gone after it the way Kefauver did. The Tennessee Democrat held hearings in eleven cities, and in every one his Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, better known as the Kefauver Committee, uncovered evidence of mob corruption. "I respectfully take the Fifth Amendment" became part of the public's vernacular as one mobster after another refused to answer the committee's questions for fear of self-incrimination. "I went to the university library every night, not to study, but to read everything I could about the mob."

Shur graduated and entered the university's law school, but Miriam dropped out to give birth to a daughter, Ilene, and two years later a son, Ron. In 1957, Shur received his law degree and passed the Texas bar. He took out a bank loan and opened his own office in Corpus Christi. "During my first week, I saw no clients--none. The phone never rang." The next week, he got one call. It was from a frantic jail inmate accused of burglarizing a clothing store. "I swear to you on my mother's life, I didn't do it," the man pleaded. Shur took the case, and when the local district attorney offered a plea bargain to avoid a jury trial, Shur refused. His client was innocent, he declared, and he was going to prove it.

The first witness to testify at the trial was the clothing store's owner. "What was stolen from your store, sir?" the prosecutor asked him.

"Well," the witness replied, "one thing is that shirt the defendant's wearing and the pants he has on and the shoes he has on."

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