Monday, January 19, 2009

U.S. Marshal Teaches Students About Witness Protection Program

Taking a page out of a realistic fiction book, some eighth-grade students at St. Patrick’s School on Friday learned that a federal program aimed at toppling crime is literally a life-changing event.

Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal Tom Cassels has been in the federal agency since June 1992. He told about 30 students at the Terre Haute private school of his service as a federal marshal in the Witness Security Program, where he worked for about 21/2 years, starting in 1996.

That witness protection program was authorized by the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970 and amended by the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984. Since its inception, more than 7,500 witnesses and more than 9,500 family members have entered the program, according to the U.S. Marshal Service’s Web site.

The program provides for the health and safety of government witnesses, along with their families, whose lives are in danger as a result of testimony against drug traffickers, organized crime members, terrorists or other major criminals. It involves relocating a person to a new community.

“We basically try to remove [witnesses] from an area that is threatening and put them in an area that is not threatening. It is basically a new identity,” Cassels said.

“The vast majority of these people were participants in a criminal activity or organization. The chance that someone is an innocent lamb that just happens to be there does happen, but not in most cases. These are people who weigh the options of going to prison for 30 years or testifying to help bring down people in the upper levels” of an organization, he said.

“No one has ever been killed or injured as long as they abide by the protocols of the program,” Cassels said.

Protocols, Cassels told students, include not contacting family members, friends or former boyfriends or girlfriends. “You have to severe all ties, period,” he said. “If it is grandma’s birthday, you don’t call her. If grandma dies, you don’t go to the funeral. That is one of the most dangerous times. That is when people say, ‘hey, this relative died, let’s see if anyone shows up.’”

“That is one of the main things than can get somebody terminated from the program, as you have to comply with all the restrictions and protocols,” he said.

Another violation is getting arrested, such as for drunk driving. A police department, using a person’s fingerprints, could discover a person’s previous identity. “We can’t lie to another [police] department,” Cassels said.

The students have been reading “Zach’s Lie,” a book published in 2001 by author Roland Smith. The book follows fictional 13-year-old Jack Osborne, whose father flies a small airplane that actually is a front for illegal drug trafficking. After his father’s arrest, his father’s former “business associates” don’t want him to talk. His family is placed into the federal Witness Security Program. Jack Osborne has to change his name to Zach Granger and moves from Texas to Elko, Nev., along with his mother and sister.

To bring the book to life, school librarian Tammy Kikta had students eat lunch family style, much like was done at the Nevada Hotel in the book. In addition, a room was decorated much like a custodian’s work room under a high school stage, where the book’s character gets away from criminals who had discovered the family in Nevada.

Cassels said relocating is “very, very hard, especially on a kid.” He said in some cases, worried parents have not let children “out to play in a year, fearing they would say a name or say where they used to live.”

Still, once placed into a safe environment, which includes a new job, witnesses are generally on their own security-wise, Cassels said. He said witnesses have to get a job and work to support their families. Most of the effort is on their part. If they are willing to work for themselves, the program will work to assist them,” he said.

Christopher Schenck, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at St. Pat’s, said the book and the visit from Cassels taught him the Witness Security Program “is a life-changing program. You really have to leave your life behind.”

Prior to hearing Cassels, students used a computer program to change hair color or eye color, as if in the program. Cassels said he could not comment if that was common practice, but said generally it is enough to geographically move a person to where someone would not recognize him. “It is really enough to hide in plain sight,” he said.

Thanks to Howard Greninger

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