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In Bureaucracy, History, Law Enforcement on June 30, 2010 at 4:40 pm

Out of the dangers and frustrations of guarding witnesses in motels grew the concept of the safehouse. Promoted by the 1967 President’s Crime Commission, the idea seemed a perfect solution, both efficient and economical.

Large numbers of endangered trial witnesses could be housed in well-guarded facilities for months or even years. Once they had finished testifying, they could remain at the safehouse until they no longer needed protection.

Starting in 1971, about a dozen safehouses were created around the nation. The permanent ones were located in Sacramento, Providence, Staten Island and Fort Holabird, Maryland. Temporary facilities were set up in Boston, Miami, San Diego, Manhattan and Bowling Green, Kentucky.

In theory–and, at first, in practice—the safehouses offered witnesses increased security at reduced expense to the Justice Department. Each safehouse had about fifty witnesses, called “principals,” who lived under constant guard for usually six to eight months.

They cooked their own meals, received a small daily allowance, and wore ordinary clothes instead of prison garb—which most of them, as convicted felons, would have worn had they been housed in jails. They were encouraged to use aliases and to mind their own business. And they were warned to not talk with other witnesses about their past crimes—a favorite topic among underworld figures.

These conditions provided several advantages over quartering witnesses in motels. Life became easier for both witnesses and their guards, who no longer had to live on the run. Witnesses had time to relax and prepare for upcoming trials. Case agents and prosecutors had ready access to witnesses for the exhaustive preparation vital to successful courtroom appearances.

At first, the safehouses weren’t meant to last more than two years. During the first one, Justice Department officials believed, the facilities would be entirely secret and secure. During the second year, they would be less secret but could presumably be made more secure by additional guards and electronic surveillance devices.

But two flaws quickly appeared in this theory. First, the safehouses were not phased out after the second year. They provided so many comforts and conveniences to witnesses, guards, case agents and prosecutors that no one wanted to terminate the arrangement. Second, many prisoner-witnesses, upon returning to prison or their underworld careers, passed along the locations of the safehouses where they had been lodged.

So the safehouses eventually became known to the Mafia. According to St. Germain: “Every Mafiosi in New England knew where the Providence safehouse was. It was well-defended, but I think that if somebody had wanted to get in there, I think they could have.”

Shortly after the opening of the Staten Island safehouse, federal agents got a tip that it was about to be blown up by the Mafia. That facility was closed and its witnesses lodged at the safehouse in Providence.

In 1975, the Mafia smuggled a hitman, posing as a witness, into a New York safehouse. He didn’t execute anyone there. He simply rifled the luggage of many witnesses, looking for the claim-tags noting their past or future relocation areas. He also mingled with many witnesses, learning where they expected to be sent after they left the safehouse.

Some witnesses grew suspicious of the curiosity of their new acquaintance. One of them called Witness Security Inspector Richard St. Germain at his office in San Francisco. He alerted his superiors at the Justice Department.

Panic-stricken, they ordered the immediate closing of that safehouse. Every witness there had to be relocated to a new area. The WITSEC imposter was rushed to the headquarters of the Program in Falls Church, Virginia, and thoroughly interrogated. St. Germain never learned what happened to him.

Because the locations of the safehouses were no longer secret, some witnesses refused to stay in them.

One man, flown from California to an Eastern state, refused to spend a single night at a particular facility. “Screw you,” he told the marshals who met him at the airport to escort him to that safehouse. He boarded the next flight to California and was gone within the hour.

By 1974, the Justice Department began closing the safehouses, with one exception. This was a “floating” safehouse in New York. Every ten days to two weeks, all the marshals and their charges staying at a particular motel would move to a new motel.

Only during the late 1980s did the concept of the safehouse—now dubbed “safesite”—re-emerge. By 1991, at least seven safesites—one in each of the seven busiest metropolitan areas of the country—had been established.

There was an important difference between the new safesites and the old safehouses: the safesites were ringed with sophisticated electronic security devices—infrared seekers, motion detectors and video surveillance cameras.

By contrast, the safehouses had depended completely on perimeter checks by deputy U.S. marshals. Donald “Bud” McPherson, the Inspector for Los Angeles in the 1980s, helped design the safesite in his city. He believed that it would not have been difficult for the Mafia to infiltrate any of the now-defunct safehouses.

So there was an interim between the closing of the safehouses and the creating of the safesites. During that period, the U.S. Marshals Service went back to quartering witnesses in motels or jails or on military bases.

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

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