“MX” for Borderland Beat; NYT
As a young Justice Department lawyer investigating the mob, he realized more witnesses might talk if they weren’t afraid of being killed.
Gerald Shur, who realized that witnesses would be more likely to testify against organized crime figures if they weren’t afraid of being assassinated, and who used that insight to create the federal witness protection program, died on Aug. 25 at his home in Warminster, Pa., He was 86. His son, Ronald, said the cause was complications of lung cancer.
In 1961 Mr. Shur became an early recruit in the crusade by Robert F. Kennedy, then the attorney general, to break the grip of organized crime in the United States. Joining the Justice Department that year as a lawyer assigned to New York, he was tasked with investigating the mob.
“In the course of that,” he told The Associated Press in 2007, “I began to hear people say, ‘I can’t testify,’ ‘I’ll be murdered before or after I testify.’” Largely at his instigation, the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970 created the Witness Security Program (sometimes known as WITSEC) under the United States Marshals Service.
One part of the program protected criminals in prison who were providing evidence against other criminals — by, for instance, isolating them in secure cells away from other inmates who might carry out a hit. The better-known part fashioned new identities for vulnerable witnesses and those close to them, allowing them to start new lives.
During his 34-year tenure at the Justice Department, 6,416 witnesses and thousands of their dependents — “including wives, children and mistresses” — were given new identities and relocated, Pete Earley, who with Mr. Shur wrote the 2002 book “WITSEC: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program,” said on his blog in a tribute to Mr. Shur. “No witnesses got protection without his personal attention,” Mr. Earley added. “He wrote nearly all of the program’s rules, shaped it based on his own personal philosophical views, and guided it with an iron hand.”
Although the program has had thousands of participants, Mr. Shur had standards governing which witnesses got in: They had to have real evidence against someone of importance, and they had to be in real jeopardy if they agreed to provide it. “I guarantee you,” Mr. Shur said in the 2007 interview, “that the kind of people we accept are ones where if the guy testified on Monday morning and didn’t get protection, he would be dead Monday afternoon.”
The program drew its share of complaints over the years, especially early on, when the number of participants grew quickly. Some of those given new identities complained of inadequate support or security in their new lives, or of trouble with paperwork. And sometimes, since many protected witnesses were lifelong criminals, the participants returned to their former, well, occupations.
But, Mr. Shur argued, the program “has led to the conviction and incarceration of 10,000 very serious criminals — people who posed a far bigger threat to the community than do those 22 percent of our people who become recidivist.”
As for the “protection” part of witness protection, it didn’t always work. But Mr. Shur said the failures invariably occurred when witnesses violated the rules put in place for their safety. “The biggest rule: Don’t go back home,” he said. “One fellow went back home, turned his doorknob and it blew up in his face.”
Such setbacks aside, in 1994, the year before he retired, Mr. Shur was able to tell a House subcommittee, “No witness who has followed the security rules has been killed.” The Marshals Service still makes that claim today.
Gerald Shur was born on Oct. 18, 1933, in the Bronx. His mother, Rose (Nissell) Shur, was a homemaker, and his father, Abraham, was general manager of the United Popular Dress Manufacturers Association, an employer group, and then owned a dress-manufacturing shop.
Mr. Shur said his interest in battling organized crime was sparked by hearing his father complain about mob influence in New York’s garment district. “My father hated the mob and what it did in a community,” he said. “From then on, I wanted to know, ‘Who were these people?’”
He graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx in 1951. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration at the University of Texas at Austin in 1955 and a law degree there in 1957. Early in his Justice Department tenure, Mr. Earley said, Mr. Shur “was assigned to babysit” Joseph Valachi, the first major mob figure to break the so-called code of silence that governed organized crime.
After Mr. Valachi’s headline-making revelations, which included testifying to a congressional committee in 1963, the government wasn’t sure what to do with him, other than give him some special accommodations in prison, where he died of a heart attack in 1971.
“Shur realized at the time two things: the power of a flipped witness to break the mob, and that future witnesses would need more than more prison time in a well-equipped cell to get them to turn against their bosses,” Mr. Earley said.
Not long after Mr. Valachi’s testimony, a federal marshal named John J. Partington was protecting another mobster-turned-informant, Joe Barboza, outside prison, including by keeping him in the Thatcher Island lighthouse in Massachusetts.
“While the Valachi case gave him the WITSEC idea,” Mr. Earley said by email, “the Barboza case helped convince him that witnesses could be protected outside incarceration, and this prompted him to suggest the creation of the program.”
Witness protection was widely credited with helping to diminish the power of organized crime. Later in Mr. Shur’s career it was brought to bear against Colombian and Mexican drug dealers and, in his final years, international terrorists.
In addition to his son, Mr. Shur is survived by his wife, Miriam (Heifetz) Shur, whom he married in 1952; a daughter, Ilene Meckley Clark; six grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. Mr. Shur ended up with a career’s worth of colorful stories about the mobsters and others who had gone through his program.
One participant, Mr. Earley related, was Mr. Shur himself. In 1991, he said, federal officials apprehended an assassin for the Medellín drug cartel who had the names of Mr. Shur and his wife on what appeared to be a hit list. They put the couple in a hotel under assumed names, Mr. Earley said, but the arrangement didn’t last long.
“Shur was miserable trying to follow the very rules that he had imposed on so many others,” he said. “After several weeks, he’d had enough and insisted on confronting the hit man despite the objections of the marshals.” The man told him he was not a target after all.