16 Shocking True Stories of People Living in the Witness Protection Program

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When you hear the words”Witness Protection Program,” most of us probably think of dramatic movies. How many of us actually know somebody who has entered the Witness Protection Program? When I hear it, I think of someone witnessing a heinous crime or a grisly murder and being forced into anonymity. They get a new identity and start over for their protection, and it’s a wild ride!

In reality, there’s nothing fun or glamorous about entering the Witness Protection Program. And, quite often, things go horribly wrong. It’s not at all what we think it is. In fact, a lot of people in the program are criminals and mobsters. Pop culture (and movies like Witness), lead us to believe all sorts of crazy things about the program.

The Witness Protection Program, also known as the Witness Security Program, has been around since the early ’70s and there are so many true stories we don’t know about.

Turns out, being in the WITSEC is not really anything like it’s portrayed in the movies.

Even though movies are said to be “inspired” by real-life accounts of the program. Here are true stories from the Witness Protection Program.

If you’ve seen the James Caan movie, “Hide In Plain Sight,” then you know the story of Thomas Leonhard.

Leonhard was a divorced man who wasn’t able to see his children after the children and their mother were forced to acquire new identities. It’s a heartbreaking story.

In 1967, Leonhard came home to find his children and ex-wife had vanished.

Leonhard eventually found out that his children and his ex-wife had to be taken away by federal agents and given new identities. His ex’s new husband was a mob informant. He didn’t get to see them again until 1975.

A mobster’s cookbook.

If you’re in the Witness Protection Program, it’s best if nobody knows who you are. But, the same can’t be said for Joseph ‘Joe Dogs’ Iannuzzi…

The man was a mobster who published cookbooks.

Iannuzzi was a Gambino crime family associate and FBI informant. He was also, a chef.

There are times when the program doesn’t work.

Unfortunately, the Witness Protection Program doesn’t always work, like with the time Natisha Gallegos needed protection against her abusive ex-husband.

But it was too late.

Gallegos had a restraining order against her ex, but he managed to find her. She was found dead in her home from stab wounds.

Sometimes the witness is a criminal who profits off of being a witness.

It sounds crazy, but it’s true. Take, for instance, Aladena ‘Jimmy the Weasel’ Fratianno.

He was both a mobster and a highly-paid witness.

After agreeing to become a government witness against the mafia, Fratianno had major expenses covered. Eventually, the program dropped him, as they didn’t want people thinking that the program could be used as a retirement option for mobsters.  

When you accidentally admit your real identity…

Uhh, talk about awkward. John Patrick Tully was a mafia hitman who decided to open a hot dog stand and give up the crime life. No, this isn’t the plot of a sitcom. This is true.

But, when he decided to run for mayor of Austin, Texas, he accidentally let slip something pretty confidential.

He confessed to his real identity and his terrifying past as a hitman. How do you go from being a hitman to selling hotdogs?   …and then to running for mayor?

If you haven’t noticed, there were a lot of mobsters in the Witness Protection Program.

Like Joseph Barboza. He was a Portuguese-American mafioso and hitman for the Patriarca family during the ’60s.

After he became deeply entangled in the mob, the FBI pursued him to become an informant.

It didn’t last long. He wasn’t considered reliable or trustworthy, and eventually went back to jail.

Sometimes the program absolutely doesn’t work.

Diana Merced was a witness against a known drug dealer in 1989, name Joseph Navedo.  She was set to testify against him in court.

She was supposed to be protected by the NYPD.

However, while visiting her mother’s apartment, she was shot in the face by two unknown attackers. The program was a horrific failure in this case.

The program can ruin your life.

Like it did for a man named David Mooney. Mooney ended up suing the State over the failures of the program.

He couldn’t work, was constantly terrified, and allegedly did not get any of the things he was promised.

Mooney claimed he should’ve received a new identity, a green card for the United States, as well as a car and a house. He said he was given none of those things.

One man was killed right before entering the program.

Corry Thomas was murdered in front of his sister’s house before he was placed in the Witness Protection Program. His connections to drug dealers could’ve helped take down criminals, but his life was taken before any of that could happen.

When you figure out how to play the system…

Jonathan Barclay knew how to take advantage of the Witness Protection Program. He had quite the criminal background, but after agreeing into the program, was only considered a “first-time offender.”

Meaning he wouldn’t be locked away for life.

Barclay ended up killing a woman, after his time in the program, due to a drunk driving incident. Some believe that the issues with the program allowing him Barclay the freedom he had, led to the woman’s death.

Javad Marshall-Fields was told he was going to die.

He agreed to testify against a person who killed his friend and also shot him twice. After agreeing, his life was in danger.

Before he could testify, he and his fiancee were shot and killed.

Here’s where it gets really messed up: Colorado has a financial fund meant to protect witnesses and people who testify from home, but Marshall-Fields was unaware that it existed.

The money is serious.

Here’s something quite disturbing: There is such a thing as being a career informant, who provides the government with crucial criminal information in exchange for moneyMany criminals stay in the program in an effort to milk the government for money and assistance.

It was revealed that some career informants can make up to $280,000 a case.

Not only that but in cash. No taxes. That payday is not a joke.

You have to follow the rules.

Daniel LaPolla was a man who decided the rules of the program weren’t for him and decided to disobey. He decided to return to his home for a funeral, but his house was rigged with explosives.

He opened the door and everything blew up.

He was 54-years-old when he died. He was killed in September of 1972.

Jackee Taylor was a 7-year-old forced into the program.

She was sent into the program along with her family. Her mother woke her up in the middle of the night and told her that U.S. Marshals ordered them to leave immediately.


They put her family into a motel.

She was taken from her home and everything she knew was gone. She says the experience left her suicidal. She believes that children should never go into the program, but instead be placed into foster care.

The program didn’t do anything for Nancy Burdell.

She was placed into protection after she witnessed a murder, but all that happened was that she was moved to a supposed “safer location.” Her program specifically had an end-date, which risked putting her life back in danger once it was over.

Marion Pruett did the opposite of what he was supposed to do in the program.

Instead of being protected, he endangered lives. He was given a new identity after witnessing the murder of his cellmate. When he left the program as Charles Sonny Pearson, he had a fresh identity and a fresh opportunity to commit horrific atrocities. These true stories are quite jarring, and they show that the movies often paint an unrealistic picture of what life in the program is like. Share this piece with your true crime-obsessed friend.