Mob Loads Boat With Dynamite Aimed At Hidden Witness: London Times & CBS Accounts Of A Life Well Lived

(9-25-20) This is not about mental illness.

The death of Gerald Shur, my good friend and co-author of WITSEC: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program, has prompted a slew of obituaries and a Life Lived Well segment on CBS. I want to share this story from The Times of London in the U.K., because it tells an  engaging story about Gerald and what it was like to battle the mob.

Founder of the Witness Protection Programme that helped the likes of ‘Sammy the Bull’ and ‘Fat Vinnie’ to testify against mob bosses

From the Times of London

When a poetry-writing hitman named Joseph “The Animal” Barboza betrayed his former associates in the New England mafia they were desperate to stop him from testifying.

Federal agents were equally determined to keep him alive for the trial of the crime boss Raymond “Il Patrone” Patriarca, who was said in 1967 to have placed a $300,000 bounty on Barboza’s head.

The killer-turned-informer was sequestered under armed guard on a desolate island off the coast of Massachusetts until the Mob discovered his location. They planned to ram a boat loaded with dynamite into the shore but Barboza had already been taken to another hideaway.

A posse of hitmen waited for Barboza outside the courthouse as the trial began, unaware that he had been smuggled into the building three days earlier and stashed in a basement storeroom. One stole a police officer’s uniform and was stopped trying to enter the courtroom. Barboza’s attorney lost his right leg to a car bomb.

Barboza remained alive and Patriarca was convicted of conspiracy to murder. Once Barboza had testified against other mafiosos, he and his family were sent for their safety to Fort Knox.

This hard-won triumph for law enforcement cemented Gerald Shur’s belief that witness protection needed to evolve from ad-hoc arrangements to a system with defined procedures. He created and ran the United States government’s Witness Protection Programme, known as Witsec (Witness Security), which formally began in 1971.

Shur, young and zealous but coolly analytical, glimpsed the reach and savagery of the Mob soon after becoming an attorney in the organised crime division of the Department of Justice in 1961. Gangs were rampant in many of the country’s big cities and informants often met gruesome ends.

He felt queasy looking at a photograph of the eviscerated corpse of a woman — the murder method sending a literal message to anyone else thinking that they might “spill their guts” to the government. Insider testimony was vital if kingpins were to fall, but few were willing to follow Joseph Valachi, who in 1963 became the first member of La Cosa Nostra to break omertà, the mafia code of silence.

The US attorney-general at the time, Robert F Kennedy, began an assault on organised crime and Shur was eager to play a part. He realised that if the government could guarantee the safety of witnesses and offer them a fresh start, enough would come forward to turn the tide of the battle. Over the years, mob “wiseguys” such as “Sammy the Bull”, “Jimmy the Weasel” and “Fat Vinnie” were given reduced sentences and new identities in exchange for their co-operation.

During Shur’s tenure the programme, which continues, protected 6,416 witnesses and 14,468 dependants and their testimonies helped to convict about 10,000 criminals, according to Witsec: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program (2002), a book he co-wrote with Pete Earley.

“At various times he served as a mob marriage counsellor, substitute father, even priest. He helped create false backgrounds for witnesses, arranged secret weddings, oversaw funerals, and personally persuaded corporate executives to hire former mob hitmen as delivery route drivers. Once he arranged for the wife of a Los Angeles killer to have breast enlargement surgery to keep her husband happy,” Earley wrote. “In return, Witsec witnesses helped topple the heads of every major crime family in every major city in the nation.”

Participants were given new birth certificates, driver’s licences and social security numbers. If they had children, school reports were altered; Shur refused requests to improve the grades. “Over the years, witnesses would complain about how long it took us to get them new documents. They’d tell us they could buy a new driver’s licence or fake birth certificate on the street in less than 24 hours,” he said.

They often kept their first names or initials but were forbidden from revealing their new identities and addresses to friends and family, leading to alienation and loneliness. Telephone calls with relatives were allowed only via a special switchboard and personal mail had to be routed via Shur’s office. One man asked Shur to protect his mistress but not his wife.

Moulding committed criminals into law-abiding citizens was testing and as the programme grew he was on call day and night, though he was found to have multiple sclerosis in 1966 and frequently endured debilitating and painful flare-ups. “Do your witnesses have any special skills?” one official asked. “Well, they can kill, steal, embezzle, and sell drugs,” Shur replied.

Inevitably, there were setbacks and scandals. Shur had awkward questions to answer after Marion “Mad Dog” Pruett, a man who was given a new identity in 1979, embarked on a homicidal spree two years later. As the programme grew it was covered copiously in the media, leading many Americans to wonder whether their quiet new neighbours from out of town might not be quite what they seemed.

American Mobster Fleeces Brits After Shur Hides Him In London

A convicted forger with a British wife was given help to move to England after he testified against the Mob. A year later he sent a Christmas card to one of Shur’s colleagues in which he claimed that he owned a bank, lived in a 17th-century mansion and used a chauffeur-driven Bentley. A subsequent missive, apparently written from prison on lavatory paper, had a more plaintive tone.

Joseph "The Animal" Barboza, testifies in Washington DC in 1972. He was gunned down four years later
Joseph “The Animal” Barboza, testifies in Washington DC in 1972. He was gunned down four years later

It transpired that the man had been caught after changing his last name from Wuensche to Winchester and using his new identity and old friends to commit an epic financial fraud. “Furious that they had been hoodwinked, British authorities filed a formal complaint with the State Department and accused Shur of trying to solve the United States’ crime problem by sending felons to England under new names,” Earley wrote. Shur refused to facilitate a repatriation.

He woke up to headlines such as “Hitman takes aim at Texas mayor’s race” in 1991 when a New Jersey mobster who had moved to Austin and reinvented himself as a hot-dog and fajita vendor named John Johnson decided to come clean and run for mayor. He held a press conference at the Texas capitol, an American flag draped around his neck and his seven-page “rap sheet” in his hands, in which he revealed his previous life as John Patrick Tully, a professional killer and drug smuggler. He lost the election to a local accountant.

Barboza, who is reputed to have murdered more than two dozen people, moved to California’s wine country and attended a cookery school before slipping back into old habits and killing a man. Back in prison, he claimed that Frank Sinatra was linked to Patriarca, sparking such a storm that the singer agreed to testify before a congressional committee in Washington in 1972, where he angrily rejected the allegations and called Barboza a “second-class punk”. Barboza’s past caught up with him in 1976, when he was shot dead on a San Francisco street.

Gerald Shur was born in New York in 1933. His father, Abraham, was a dressmaker and general manager of a trade group; his mother, Rose (née Nissell), was a secretary at a clothing company. The Mob had infiltrated the Manhattan garment industry and his father’s contempt for their corruption left an impression on the young Shur.

He moved to Austin in 1951 to study business at the University of Texas. At a party he met another 17-year-old, Miriam Heifetz, a marketing student, and proposed on their second date. Since they were underage they eloped and married in secret. A religious ceremony conducted by a rabbi followed in 1952. His wife, a former primary school teacher, survives him, along with their children, Ronald, a former federal drug enforcement prosecutor in Miami, and Ilene, a motivational trainer.

Shur qualified as a lawyer in 1957 and opened a practice in the Texan city of Corpus Christi. His first client was a shoplifter who turned up for his trial in a stolen shirt, trousers and shoes that were identified by the first witness, the store owner. “You told me to wear something neat and these are the only decent clothes I own,” the hapless thief told Shur. The only way was up, and he jumped at the chance to move to Washington.

A few years before his 1995 retirement, Shur and his wife lived on a trawler at a marina in Maryland. The boat was named the Half-and-Half, a reference to Shur’s habit of telling his wife that together their love made them whole. Inside was a high-tech security camera system, a Glock pistol, a Ruger semi-automatic rifle, a shotgun and enough ammunition to take down a small army.

Shur had long known that working with villains carried personal risk. His daughter had once answered a threatening telephone call at their home and he carried a concealed weapon. He was warned in 1991 that he and his wife were potential kidnap targets after a suspected hitman with ties to Colombian drug traffickers was captured crossing the US-Mexico border. The man said he had been offered $250,000 to abduct one of the Shurs and force Gerald to reveal where a cartel target was stashed.

The couple moved to a hotel under a false name and his wife was assigned armed protection. After several months it transpired that the cartel was in fact after one of his colleagues, but the experience was distressing. “Being relocated was something I would not wish on anyone,” he reflected in his book. “The only reason to do it was if it was your only hope to stay alive.”

Gerald Shur, founder of the US government Witness Protection Programme, was born on October 18, 1933. He died of complications from lung cancer on August 25, 2020, aged 86

Gerald’s life was commemorated in the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Post, and NPR.

The New York Times also published an obituary about Norman Carlson, the retired director of the federal Bureau of Prisons, and a major character in my book, The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison.

Mr. Carlson was another friend of mine who died in August.


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.