In Bureaucracy, History, Law Enforcement on July 12, 2010 at 9:51 pm

In 1978, the loss of the safehouses was partially offset by the long-overdue arrival of sophisticated anti-intrusion devices for witness-security details. No longer would marshals string beer cans together as improvised alarms, or cover windows with mattresses or heavy army blankets.

That had been precisely the case for the marshals guarding Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno in 1978. Fratianno was an outcast from his Los Angeles Mafia “family”. He had come to New York to testify against members of the nation’s most powerful Mafia cartels. New York’s “five families,” commanding 2,500 “soldiers,” were the final arbiters of all Mafia disputes nationwide. Their bosses were the richest and most powerful crime figures in the country.

And going up against a virtual army of hitmen was a handful of deputy U.S. marshals commanded by Donald “Bud” McPherson. The security site was an abandoned WAC barracks at Ford Hamilton, a Brooklyn army base at the foot of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, overlooking New York Harbor.

Every time a gust of wind shot through the barracks, the tin-can “intrusion alarms” rattled. Marshals grabbed their rifles or shotguns and scrambled to find a hitman. Fratianno himself seized a pump-action shotgun, braced himself against a wall, and waited for an attack that never came.

The detail’s supervisor, Donald “Bud” McPherson, had been a deputy U.S. marshal since 1971. He had been the district contact man, or number-two, to John Tatum, the security Inspector for Los Angeles. On a daily basis, McPherson had overseen witness-security details throughout Southern California, from Los Angeles to Mexico. One of his charges had been John W. Dean, the former White House counsel who had turned State’s evidence against President Richard Nixon.

By 1974, McPherson had been appointed as a security Inspector in his own right and transferred to Kansas City, Kansas.

McPherson thus had a proven track-record as a security specialist. He also had a thorough knowledge of the innermost workings of the Mafia. He knew that Mafiosi had traditionally avoided direct confrontations with lawmen—especially at the federal level.

Mobsters sometimes bribed police, but never slew them. Organized crime wanted no part of the frenzied investigation that followed a police killing. And no Mafia hitman would dare infiltrate a military base, swarming with soldiers and marshals–not even for such a prize witness as Jimmy Fratianno.

McPherson, knowing this, counted it to his—and Fratianno’s—advantage. But Howard Safir didn’t know this. Safir was a thirteen-year agent and supervisor of the Drug Enforcement Administration. In 1977, he had been loaned to the U.S. Marshals Service as an outside consultant to overhaul a Program struggling to survive. Among its deficiencies: too many witnesses (almost 3,000), too few security specialists (seven, at one point) and not enough protective equipment.

Safir thus became the fourteenth chief of the Program in seven years—but the first to effectively cope with its unique challenges. One of his first acts was to visit the marshals’ detail for Jimmy Fratianno. He wanted to learn, firsthand, the realities of witness-security assignments.

When Safir visited McPherson at the security site at Fort Hamilton, he was appalled. Why had the marshals strung cans together as makeshift alarms? Why were they using Army blankets and mattresses to cover the windows? Why weren’t they using state-of-the-art electronic surveillance devices to spot intruders?

“Because we don’t have any electronic devices,” answered McPherson. “We’ve been promised them for years, but no one ever gets them.”

“You’ll have them,” promised Safir.

And, within two months, McPherson’s detail had the equipment, as did other security details throughout the nation. At last, the marshals could establish genuine perimeter security for both themselves and their charges.

The closing of the safehouses once again taught the Justice Department an important lesson about its witness-clients: they would always prove the weakest link in the chain of security precautions. And this would hold true no matter how efficient, incorruptible and well-equipped its protection agents might be.

Those who severed all ties to the past and kept a low profile could expect to live in reasonable safety and comfort. Those who failed to do so wound up dropped from the Program—and most likely murdered. The Justice Department, however, could not require these endangered people to follow its security guidelines. This was a decision that could be made only by the witnesses themselves.

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


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