Denver Bar Association
January 2010
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The Road Worrier, Part III

by Greg Rawlings

He is adamant that his beers be served in proper glasses. He rolls his own cigarettes, and uses too much cologne. He has never met a remotely good-looking woman whom he hasn’t immediately hit on, and he has been imprisoned on more than one continent.

He obviously misses his extended misspent youth, one spent stealing, conning, selling enormous quantities of drugs, doing enormous amounts of drugs and being, well, an international gangster.

He is also a wonderful guy who would give you the shirt off his back.

His name is not going into this little article. That’s because he’s in WITSEC, the federal Witness Security Protection Program. Let’s call him "Ron." That’s the name used by author Dave Copeland in the book about his pre-WITSEC life, "Blood and Volume: Inside New York’s Israeli Mafia."

Ron is part of a loose coterie of my friends and ne’er-do-wells who meet every week or so at a local music establishment. He and I became acquainted for one simple reason: we like jazz. We come at happy hour for the excellent cheap eats, the just-as-excellent cheap drinks and, of course, the ambiance.

I’d known Ron for awhile, but we hadn’t really hit it off. Then, someone told him that I’m also kind of a writer and I’m a criminal defense lawyer. It soon became crystal clear: Ron knew a lot about crime and a great deal about defending criminals.

Throw in the shaved head, the suit jackets over turtlenecks and the thick accent and it became apparent that Ron was either a criminal or someone with a serious crime fetish.

After a few conversations, he asked if I’d like to read a book that had been written about him. As an avid reader, I said sure. I have many friends who have published books, some pretty darn good ones and even a couple borderline masterpieces. But I couldn’t think of anyone I knew who’d had a book written about them.

The next time you’re enjoying a cocktail at a local bar, listen for the accent and sniff at the air for a potent cologne. The man sitting atop the stool beside you may have a most interesting story to tell you.

Ron brought a copy the next time we saw each other and I start reading about one of the most insane lives ever lived. I mean, how many of your drinking buddies have broken out of a German prison or helped run a boutique stocked entirely with stolen merchandise? He’s also imported cocaine by the boatload. Ron got in so deep with the globe-trotting criminal element that he had to assume a new identity and move thousands of miles from home so as to not get, uh, whacked.

Meeting Ron sparked my interest in WITSEC itself. Growing up in the 1970s, the news was littered with tales of mafia hits and crime trials. The cinemas were full of films like "Serpico" and "The Godfather." It was a world of crooked cops, psychotic criminals and, starting in 1970 or so, the Federal Witness Protection Program. Someone had to testify against the mobsters, and dead men tell no tales.

Most people credit a staffer for Arkansas Sen. John L. McClennan (who credited G. Robert Blakely) with writing the section of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970. The act included provisions for the witness protection program. McClennan worked at the urging of Gerald Shur, a U.S. Attorney who’d served under Robert F. Kennedy when Kennedy was Attorney General.

Shur had prosecuted major cases in the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section of the Department of Justice. He used witness protection and grants of immunity to lock up his share of gangsters.

Anyone who read Peter Maas’s "The Valachi Papers" back in the day understands what this entailed. Policymakers first had to decide who qualified for witness relocation, and what could be done to keep witnesses safe. They had to figure out how to integrate these people into new communities with new identities. Finally, they had to consider the safety of the new communities, when inserting a (hopefully) retired gangster into the mix.

I won’t go into detail (though they are pretty darn interesting), but for anyone interested, Shur himself wrote the best account of the rise and use of the program in his book "WITSEC."

So, back to Ron. I finally asked him, "What’s the hardest thing about being in the program?" I figured he’d say testifying against old friends, moving from places like New York City and Tel Aviv to Denver, or just losing the frisson of a well-executed crime.

"Getting a real job. It’s hard. All I knew was crime."

Getting a real job was not at all what I expected. And, yes, he has a real job. He’s also a good father (as opposed to being a Godfather, I guess). The only thing he likes better than talking about crime and criminals is talking about his daughter — another thing we have in common.

The next time you’re enjoying a cocktail at a local bar, listen for the accent and sniff at the air for a potent cologne. The man sitting atop the stool beside you may have a most interesting story to tell you. You never know.

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