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The U.S. Federal Witness Protection Program Founder Dies At 86

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Witness Protection Program has been a ripe subject for Hollywood.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MY BLUE HEAVEN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As narrator) Former gangster Vincent "Vinnie" Antonelli...

STEVE MARTIN: (As Vinnie) I'm a new man.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As narrator) ...Is being placed under federal protection, hidden in suburbia.

MARTIN: (As Vinnie) This is the new me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As narrator) Being in the Witness Protection Program may save Vinnie's life.

CHANG: The 1990 movie "My Blue Heaven" was one such story. It starred Steve Martin playing a former New York City gangster whose big-city personality wasn't a great fit for his new suburban life. The film might never have been written if it were not for Gerald Shur. He created the real witness security program, or WITSEC, as it's officially known. Shur died late last month at age 86 of complications from lung cancer. Back in 2002, Shur told WHYY's Fresh Air that in reality, it could be tough for witnesses in protection to blend into their new lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GERALD SHUR: There's some cultural differences between New Yorkers and the rest of the United States. We did put some out there in Wyoming, and we put some out in Idaho. Those folks thought they were put out into the wilderness, and they needed the noise of the city and the excitement and so on.

CHANG: Shur said that he soon made changes to the program.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SHUR: Take the people out of New York; put them where there are other people from New York City or from other cities and so on.

CHANG: Gerald Shur was a New Yorker himself. As a young boy, he saw how mob types would intimidate his own father, who worked in the garment industry in Manhattan. In 1961, he joined the Justice Department under Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who was targeting organized crime.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SHUR: I would begin to meet with potential witnesses, and then they would refuse to testify because - you know, I'll be killed if I talk.

CHANG: Throughout the 1960s, Shur developed his idea to protect witnesses. And in 1971, the Witness Security Program became official.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SHUR: There was no model for it. I had to make it up as I went along.

PETE EARLEY: It was very controversial when it first started...

CHANG: Writer Pete Earley - he co-authored the book "WITSEC" with Gerald Shur.

EARLEY: ...Because the only way you can get the big fish is by getting involved with some of the little fish.

CHANG: Shur went to great lengths at times to make sure the witnesses in his program were set up for success.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SHUR: On some occasions, we've relocated the wife and mistress to the same community. And in one particular case, the mistress moved in with the fellow's parents, who we relocated. And his wife lived with him, she knowing about the mistress. We felt it was not for us to judge the relationships among the people, but to make sure that those who might have been killed because that witness testified were kept safe.

CHANG: But Shur learned to be cautious with the witnesses, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SHUR: We learned that we had to watch out for these folks because they were going to try to con us just as they conned everybody else.

CHANG: Critics thought setting mobsters up with new identities and finding them jobs and houses was rewarding them for bad behavior. And some of the witnesses committed crimes under their new identities or couldn't keep their mouths shut. Author Pete Earley says one of the first big fish who was willing to testify about white-collar crime was Vincent "Fat Vinnie" Teresa.

EARLEY: One of the problems they ran into with Vinnie was that he liked being famous. This not only made a problem when they relocated him; they had to move him several, several times because he would - literally at one point jumped up on a bar and announced, hey, I'm Vinnie Teresa. I'm the big mobster.

CHANG: And some got antsy and missed their old lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SHUR: One fellow went back home, opened up the door of his house and it blew up in his hand and blew him up. He, of course, had been told not to go home.

CHANG: Still, Shur was proud to say that none of the witnesses he granted new identities to who followed his rules were ever found and killed. Gerald Shur died August 25 at the age of 86.

(SOUNDBITE OF AGNES OBEL'S "MARY (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.