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HOW THE FEDS LEARNED TO PROTECT WITNESSES–PART THREE

In Bureaucracy, History, Law Enforcement on June 2, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Even the most experienced deputy U.S. marshals faced pulse-pounding tensions while transporting hunted witnesses–especially to and from courthouses.

The Secret Service had taught the marshals to surround a witness with guards and rush him in and out of courthouses. But this tactic was soon abandoned by at least one deputy marshal. This was James A. Gardiner, who, in 1968, was assigned to the detail that protected Joseph Barboza, once the most-feared hitman in the New England mafia.

“You know,” Barboza bragged one day to Gardiner, “if I was still in the Mafia, I could kill any witness you have, if I really wanted to.”

“How could you do that?” asked Gardiner.

Barboza pointed out that the marshals timed their courthouse arrivals by the court calendar. This record was available to anyone—including mobsters. The hitmen could simply station themselves nearby and wait for the appointed hour for the marshals’ detail to arrive.

Gardiner had served with the Army’s White House Security Division from 1958 to 1961. He had known many Secret Service agents and had learned much from them about personal security. Still, Barboza’s observation stunned him. From then on, Gardiner varied the movements of his security details and no longer relied on sheer numbers of armed guards to fend off an attack.

Many years later, Gardiner would candidly admit that during its early days, the Witness Security Program wasn’t as sophisticated as it was later to become: “We were damn lucky we didn’t lose a witness in those days.”

As for the technique of surrounding a witness with an army of guards and rushing him in and out of buildings: “That doesn’t always work, either. You rely on your Intelligence”—that is, the highly sensitive data produced by agencies such as the FBI and DEA, which maintain close watch on suspected threats to organized crime witnesses.

Even when a law enforcement agency got a warning that a hit was to be made at a specific time and place, uncertainty remained. The information might be genuine. Or it might be the attempt of an informant to ingratiate himself with authorities by telling them something they would certainly take seriously. Or the report could simply be the product of underworld gossip.

And even if the tip were genuine, no one could predict the actual behavior of the hitman assigned to the job. A friend once asked Witness Security Inspector Richard St. Germain: “Suppose you get a tip that the mob’s going to hit a witness at a courthouse. You put up a security blanket and nothing happens. How do you know whether the tip was false, or that the hitman was scared off by your security precautions?”

“You don’t know,” answered St. Germain. “You just take your precautions and hope that nothing happens.”

Some witnesse-security agents disdained the threat posed by a potential Mafia sniper: “Mob hitmen aren’t great marksmen,” scoffed John Brophy, a veteran of witness-security assignments dating back to Joseph Barboza. “Mob hits are made with a pistol from seven feet away. There is just too much of a danger—to the Mob—of accidentally killing a federal agent who’s guarding a witness.”

Such a killing would trigger an awesome crackdown from an enraged Justice Department—exactly the reaction that American organized crime groups had learned to avoid at all costs.

Such a crackdown erupted in April, 1963, after four New York mobsters knocked FBI agent John Foley to the ground, and then severely beat and kicked him. Foley had been conducting surveillance at the Brooklyn funeral of Carmine “The Doctor” Lombardozzi, a capo in the Gambino Mafia Family.

The FBI retaliated by launching an all-out war against the Gambinos. Agents leaned heavily on the cartel’s boss, underboss, counselor and lieutenants. The Bureau also intensified its use of illegal electronic surveillance against the mobsters. Even law-abiding relatives of the Gambinos—one of these a nun, the other a priest—found themselves interrogated.

Angelo Bruno, the boss of the Philadelphia crime syndicate, unwittingly informed a hidden microphone on how the FBI brutally drove home the message to “boss of all bosses” Carlo Gambino:

BRUNO: They [the FBI] went to Carlo and named all his capos to him….The FBI asked him: “Did you change the laws in your family, that you could hit FBI men, punch and kick them? Well, this is the test—that if you change the laws, and now you are going to hit FBI men, every time we pick up one of your people we are going to break their heads for them.”

And, really, they picked up our guy, they almost killed him, the FBI. They don’t do that, you know. But they picked up one of his fellows and crippled him. They said, “This is an example. Now, the next time anyone lays a hand on an FBI man, that’s just a warning. There’s nothing else we have got to tell you.” And they went away.

Word traveled quickly through the nationwide organized crime network—and its leaders decreed there should be no further assaults on FBI agents.

Copyright@1984 Taking Cover: Inside the Witness Security Program, by Steffen White and Richard St. Germain

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