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By Rebecca Day

WITSEC: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program, by Pete Earley and Gerald Shur. Bantam Books, 2002, 359 pages. $26.95.

This engrossing history of the Federal Witness Protection Program co-authored by the program's founder, Gerald Shur, and journalist Pete Earley, is a must-read for anyone interested in wiseguys and the other wiseguys who rat on them.

A crucial episode in the early development of that program occurred right here on the Niagara Frontier. In late 1966 -- four years after Joseph Valachi unveiled the Mafia's secrets -- the Justice Department decided to put together a strike force against organized crime. Its first target was 75-year-old Stefano Magaddino, who was acting boss of the national Commission while Vito Genovese was imprisoned.

Pascal "Paddy" Calabrese was a "made man" serving five years for robbery, and embittered because he felt the organization was not helping his family. He gave the task force information leading to the arrest and conviction of two top guys, Freddy Randaccio and Patsy Natarelli, who each received a 20-year sentence. In return, Calabrese negotiated an immediate parole, along with relocation of himself, his girlfriend Rochelle and her children. This was the first occasion the Justice Department helped relocate and create a new identity for an informant.

Thomas Leonhard, Rochelle's husband and the father of her three children, spent years trying to locate them, enlisting the services of local attorney Salvatore R. Martoche and being stonewalled by the Justice Department. The case dragged through the courts for years, became a local cause celebre championed by Buffalo Evening News reporter Lee Coppola, and was eventually made into the movie "Hide in Plain Sight," starring James Caan.

The program would experience many more ups and downs over the years. Records show that only six percent of witnesses in the program have no criminal record and one in four return to crime within two years.

A rational instinct for self-preservation should have told these guys that, once they'd assumed their new identities, any criminal involvement would risk bringing them to the attention of their former associates. But many were not ready to go the egg-noodles-and-ketchup route. The lure of the money and power they once enjoyed, and probably the thrill of risk for its own sake, drew many inexorably back to their old way of life.

One such witness was Joe Barboza, who spent six years in the program before being gunned down in a 1976 drive-by in San Francisco. He'd set himself up in a new business shaking down bookies, whom he intimidated by sharing details of his past as a mob hitman. Apparently the word got out.

Another such case was Gerald Zelmanowitz of New Jersey. Relocated to San Francisco under his new identity of Paul Maris, he became a successful dress manufacturer in the 1970s, with flashy cars and a mansion. The problem was that his investors did not see his obvious success reflected in their own wallets and hired a private investigator.

With remarkable lack of insight into the criminal mind, WITSEC had issued all of Zelmanowitz's relocated family -- from grandma to grandkids -- consecutive Social Security numbers. Zelmanowitz had assured them that no family members would ever be working in the same place. As soon as he started his company, he put the whole family on the payroll.

This raised a red flag for the investigator and a little further research soon revealed Zelmanowitz's boasts of owning a company in Japan and radio stations in Ohio were untrue. He had taken advantage of his blank-slate identity to fancifully embellish his past. The investigator soon uncovered his true identity and the unhappy investors announced they were ready to hold a press conference to expose him. WITSEC had to re-relocate the entire family immediately.

In another example of bad planning, one agent began relocating all witnesses assigned to him within an hour's drive of his Orange County, Calif. home. Holed up in a New York City hotel awaiting their turns to testify, the wiseguys discovered they were neighbors and exchanged phone numbers. Did these newly-forged friendships lead to backyard barbecues, maybe a block party or community watch? No, they decided to get together to extort local drug-dealers.

While some took it upon themselves to prove the adage that criminals are dumb, others cleverly milked the system for all it was worth. Cleveland hitman Jimmy "the Weasel" Fratianno spent the last decade and more of his life in comfortable retirement, collecting nearly a million dollars from WITSEC over that period. They even paid for extensive plastic surgery for his wife.

Not surprisingly, honest people who tried to work within the system tended to fare the worst. A "20/20" segment entitled "Hostages of Fear," broadcast in October, 1980, detailed the sad story of Joseph Calimano, who was not a criminal but had assisted the FBI in an undercover operation against the Gambino crime family and testified before a grand jury. WITSEC relocated him and his family to Houston, where he opened a business by taking out a bank loan. As fate would have it, someone from the old neighborhood moved in down the block. With their cover blown, the family was ordered to leave town immediately or forfeit WITSEC protection. They also ordered Calimano to settle his debt, which he could not afford to do, or be prosecuted for fraud. The stress and fear of this catch-22 situation drove Calimano to take his own life.

Sometimes the results of bureaucratic ineptitude were even more tragic. Marion Albert Pruett was a bum with a long criminal record. He was in the program because he testified to witnessing the prison murder of a snitch, William Zambito, by Allen "Big Al" Benton.

In April, 1981, living under the name Charles Pearson in Albuquerque, Pruett told cops that an unidentified body found in the desert was probably his missing wife. He said they were both in the Witness Protection Program and blamed the mob for her murder.

His story seemed fishy, but with his criminal history wiped clean, cops were unable to hold him and he fled on an interstate spree of robbery and murder that netted him six more victims.

Following his capture, Pruett bragged to reporters that he'd murdered Zambito at Benton's behest, then turned on him when he declined to pay for the service. In a televised interview, Pruett burst into peals of glee over how cleverly he'd enlisted the government's support in his bloody rampage.

The case generated widespread public outrage that the Witness Protection Program was shielding dangerous criminals like Pruett, putting honest citizens at risk for their lives. While the authors acknowledge the program's decidedly mixed results, they argue that without the Ron Finos and Sammy Gravanos of this world, the Stefano Magaddinos and John Gottis would have little to worry about.

Niagara Falls Reporter April 23 2002