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Mafia: Story of Gerald Shur who helped jailed 10,000 mobsters

His fellow inmates were still rubbing the sleep from their eyes when the men in black came for Salvatore 'Sammy the Bull' Gravano. 

It was an April morning in 1995, and a sharpshooter on board a black helicopter hovering over the Federal Correctional Institution in Phoenix, Arizona, watched as an armoured personnel carrier rumbled into the Mesa Unit, a high-security 'prison within a prison'.

Six heavily armed men in black jumpsuits, their faces hidden by black hoods, jumped out and marched into the prison unit. They went straight to the cell of a solitary prisoner and ordered him to put on a bulletproof jacket.

They were there not to kill him but to save him.

Outside the prison, four cars were waiting to escort the personnel carrier at high speed to a nearby military airfield, where a Lear jet was waiting to fly to a destination unknown to anyone except four government officials. Gravano was going to meet Gerald Shur, the remarkable founder of the U.S. Federal Witness Protection Programme.

Gerald Shur, the retired founder and longtime head of the Federal Witness Protection Program, poses for a portrait May 6, 2002 at an undisclosed suburban location

Gravano, who had been involved in the murders of 19 people, had a $2 million bounty on his head for helping to put a string of Mob bosses, including the notorious John Gotti, in prison.

'There were guards guarding guards guarding guards,' recalled Mr Shur of the Bull's protection.

Having served just five years in prison in exchange for giving evidence, the New York mobster was given a new identity — as 'Jimmy Moran' — and a new business, installing swimming pools in Arizona.

However, within months, he tired of the restraints of his government-managed new life and left the programme. In 2002, he was jailed for 20 years for running a drug-smuggling ring.

Gravano may have preferred to take his chances but thousands of others didn't.

During his 34-year stint at the Justice Department, Shur — who recently died of lung cancer, aged 86 — provided new identities and homes for 6,416 witnesses, not to mention thousands of their dependents, including wives, children and even mistresses. Their evidence helped to convict at least 10,000 criminals — not only mobsters but, later, Latin American drug-traffickers and terrorists.

Joseph 'The Baron' Barboza, a tough talking former Mafia enforcer, sought to connect Frank Sinatra and three Boston sports figures with the New England crime syndicate headed by Raymond Patriaroa in testimony before the House Crime Committee

In the process, Shur naturally made himself very unpopular with criminals. (He spent his later years living with his wife on a converted trawler in Maryland, protected by a high-tech anti-intruder system and a lot of guns and ammunition.)

But Shur, a veteran New York prosecutor, knew the government had to do far more to protect organised crime witnesses, even if it meant giving them wholly new lives. This controversial policy has long been a mainstay of film and TV thrillers, including Martin Scorsese's masterpiece Goodfellas, which features Ray Liotta's memorable portrayal of the mobster Henry Hill, whose testimony resulted in 50 of his former Mafia associates being convicted.

But the real story — often even more outlandish than fiction — was revealed by Shur in a book he wrote with journalist Pete Earley in 2002 (Witsec: Inside The Federal Witness Protection Program). 'No witness got protection without his personal attention,' said Mr Earley. 'He helped to create false backgrounds, arranged secret weddings, oversaw funerals.'

When, in 1961, Shur joined U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy's war on organised crime as a Justice Department lawyer in New York, the Mafia was a powerful force in America. It expressed its displeasure at 'rats' who informed by brutally eviscerating them, so their demise would serve as a warning that anyone who 'spilled his guts' to the police would end up doing so literally.

Shur had witnessed at first hand the Mafia's insidious power when, as a teenager, he saw thugs trying to intimidate his father, a Manhattan dressmaker, who worked in an industry the Mob had infiltrated.

'My father hated the Mob and what it did to the community,' he recalled. His father's anger was 'the fuel that fed my fire'.

As a federal organised crime investigator, he quickly came to realise the Mob bosses were virtually untouchable unless witnesses were prepared to give first-hand testimony.

Yet even when law enforcers had a willing witness, it was almost impossible to keep him alive.

John Gotti was pictured leaving The Ravenite Social Club on Mulberry Street In New York City's Little Italy on the evening of his acquittal of Federal Racketering Charges in March or April 1990

In 1967, Joseph 'The Animal' Barboza agreed to testify that he had carried out 20 murders for New England's Mob boss, Raymond Patriarca, after learning that the crime lord had put a $300,000 bounty on his head.

Barboza's protectors in the U.S. Marshals Service initially hid him and his family in a lighthouse off the coast of Massachusetts, with 16 bodyguards. The day after they relocated him, a hitman had planned to crash a motorboat loaded with 1,600lb of dynamite into it.

At least five hitmen were waiting outside the courthouse when the trial started and one almost got into the court disguised as a policeman. Barboza's lawyer lost a leg to a car bomb and the marshals ended up smuggling him to court in a post van, a sports car, a helicopter and even a fishing boat.

After the trial, Barboza and his family were housed along with the U.S. gold reserves in Fort Knox — the only place considered sufficiently safe.

Shur realised they couldn't go on like this.

'The solution was protection through anonymity,' he said. 'The best way to keep a witness safe was by moving him away from the danger area, to a place where no one knew who he was.' After all, he reasoned, they weren't dealing with sophisticated KGB spies but with mobsters who had often never left New York in their lives. The creation in 1970 of the witness protection programme (also known as Witsec, or witness security) to protect them both inside and outside prison was almost entirely Shur's doing. And he made up the rules as he went along.

After giving evidence, witnesses had to be moved to a secret location in the U.S. and given a new identity. But Shur was worried that if they gave criminals too good a cover — especially a spotless financial history — it would enable them to start a new criminal career.

Instead they were given, at the very least, a new birth certificate, driving licence and social security card. Their children were even given new school records — but Shur drew the line at upgrading their exam results.

Witnesses had to accept a legal change of name (although they could keep their first name and initials) but could not tell friends or anyone beyond immediate family of their new identity. Witnesses could talk on the phone and correspond by mail — both had to go through their federal handlers — but that was it.

And for all the Mafia's pride in its omerta, or code of silence, disaffected members were soon singing like canaries. In early 1970, on average one mobster a week was seeking witness protection. Four years later, the annual number had soared to 400.

By the 1980s, it cost Witsec an average of $40,000 each time it relocated a witness. Often, not only wives and children but also mistresses had to get the same service, as they were obvious targets for retaliation. Shur recalled how one witness asked him to protect his mistress but not his wife (he protected both women).

The government usually helped towards rent and food for a few years, but there were often extra costs. Aladena Fratianno, alias Jimmy the Weasel, the highest-ranking mobster ever to join the programme, even weaselled out of officials the cost of his mistress's breast enhancement operation. Another witness had a penile implant funded by the U.S. taxpayer, after a psychologist warned that he might not be able to testify unless his 'self-esteem' was restored.

Shur countered that he set a high bar on who was admitted to the programme. 'I guarantee you that the kind of people we accept are ones where if the guy testified on Monday morning and didn't get protection, he would be dead by Monday afternoon,' he said.

Shur's biggest challenge was finding jobs for his 'clients', many of whom had never done an honest day's work in their lives. He personally met corporation bosses and managed to persuade some to employ former hitmen as delivery drivers.

But Shur, a veteran New York prosecutor, knew the government had to do far more to protect organised crime witnesses, even if it meant giving them wholly new lives. This controversial policy has long been a mainstay of film and TV thrillers, including Martin Scorsese's masterpiece Goodfellas, which features Ray Liotta's memorable portrayal of the mobster Henry Hill, whose testimony resulted in 50 of his former Mafia associates being convicted

Although witnesses' children were considered the greatest risk of giving the game away, witnesses themselves were sometimes their own worst enemy, even breaking Shur's cardinal rule to never, ever return home.

One man who did turned the knob of his booby-trapped front door and was blown up.

For other witnesses, the main problem was going straight because, as one of Shur's colleagues put it, they 'simply didn't know the direction'.

Joseph 'The Animal' Barboza — the mobster the Feds had tried so hard to protect — moved to California, murdered a fellow drug dealer and was shot dead within minutes of trying to extort money from a bookmaker, revealing his real identity for added effect.

And Marion 'Mad Dog' Pruett, who was given a new identity in 1979 after testifying about a prison killing, two years later went on a crime spree that included murdering his wife and four other people, and robbing a string of banks to feed his $4,000-a-week cocaine habit. Local police were furious they had never been told of his true identity.

The first big 'star' of the protection programme was Vincent 'Fat Vinnie' Teresa, a 21-stone Mafia hitman who helped convict 50 gangsters in 19 trials.

Teresa, who once ran a loan-shark company and kept a tank of piranhas in his office, into which he forced latepayers' hands, was one of many witnesses who relished their fame and kept giving new Mafia names to prosecutors to remain in the limelight.

Eventually, he was relocated to a seaside town and given a fish shop to run. Within weeks, he had to be moved after other fish traders complained that someone was breaking their windows. He was next given a bar in Texas but one night got very drunk, climbed on to the bar and told everyone who he really was.

Teresa went on to rack up a string of convictions.

'He just couldn't stop conning people,' said Shur.

But no witness conned quite like Hugh Wuensche, who was provided with a new identity in 1971 after he testified that he had laundered $50 million of stolen securities for the Mob.

He had a British wife and chose to relocate to England. A year after leaving, he sent one of Shur's colleagues a Christmas card saying that he was now living in a 17th-century mansion, had a chauffeur-driven Bentley and owned his own bank.

A year later, he sent another Christmas missive, this time from prison and apparently written on lavatory paper. It transpired that he had used his new identity to commit a $2 million fraud. Furious that it had never been warned about him, the British government made a formal complaint to the State Department but Shur refused to repatriate him.

Although Shur insisted that his strategy was the only way to win criminals' co-operation and break the Mob, some U.S. marshals resented having to protect hoodlums who were often getting paid more than they were.

They certainly made a few terrible slip-ups — some them possibly intentional — such as paging a witness by his real name over an airport tannoy, putting another in a jail with his sworn enemies, and redirecting post to witnesses with 'U.S. Marshals Service/Witness Security' as the return address.

However, that didn't stop Shur viewing his project as a success.

Some witnesses may have become so depressed in the programme that they attempted suicide. But Shur was proud to say that no witness who followed his rules was ever found and killed.

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