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A dramatic peek at how witnesses vanish

By Gloria Goodale Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian / December 10, 1999



PASADENA, CALIF.

Think about everything that makes your life complete - your home, your spouse, your children. Include in that list your neighborhood, your car, even your Social Security number, not to mention your name on your yearbook photo and your personal checking account. Now imagine all of that gone, forever, not by earthquake or fire but because one day you woke to find yourself in the Federal Witness Protection Program.

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"Witness Protection," an HBO original movie, examines this scenario (Saturday, Dec. 11, 8-9:30 p.m.). A unique aspect of this fact-based drama is that in the nearly 30 years of the federal program's existence, the government has never allowed an outside observer to come inside.

Until now.

The TV film is based on the work of a New York Times reporter, Robert Sabbag, who was allowed extraordinary access into one of the most securely guarded of all federal agencies.

"Probably the greatest measure of the layers of security that the witness program puts on these people is that it took me a year," Mr. Sabbag says, "from the time the Marshal Service agreed to cooperate, until the time that I actually interviewed the family."

The movie focuses on a fictional family, narrowing in on the emotionally treacherous journey it must make as it passes from the familiar into the unknown. One of the most difficult aspects of putting anyone in the witness protection program is the burden it places on the innocent relatives of federal witnesses, who become unwilling participants as they leave behind all they know to create new lives.

"When I was talking to the families, before they came into the program, when we were doing what we call a preliminary interview," says Bud McPherson, a former US marshal, 20-year veteran of the Witness Protection Program, and technical adviser for the show, "I would tell them, 'If you have any other option, exercise it. This is the most difficult thing you'll ever be asked to do in your life.' "

He always emphasizes, "If it's not a matter of life and death, don't do it."

The film focuses on the five days of actual transition from the old life to the new, revealing the personal journeys each participant must take through denial and acceptance of the inevitable.

"Think about all the lies you've ever told when you're a legitimate person," says Tom Sizemore ("Saving Private Ryan," "The Relic"), who plays Mafia underboss "Bobby Batton," who is entering the program. Batton has kept his profession a secret from his family.

"All the lies you told the people you love ... and having them laid on the table in front of the person you lied to," Mr. Sizemore says. "That's what happens to this family, particularly the protagonist.

"[He] is a very tough guy," adds the actor, "who has, for want of a better term, beaten and killed his way to the top of the food chain of the Mafia in Boston. So he's not automatically going to go [into protection] when this [US marshal] tells him, 'You're going to do x, y, and z.' ... It takes a period of breaking him to make the transition.... After that, he must deal with the harsh reality of laying his past bare to his family."

In order to create a foundation for a new life, Sizemore says, his character must face who he has been, as well as look for the positive areas from his former life on which to build. "He has something in himself because his son is going to Harvard," he says. "The character's wife decides to stay with [Batton] even knowing information she previously did not."

The success rate of the real-life program has been 100 percent, Marshal McPherson says. "No one has ever been found because of their connection to the witness program.

"The only fatalities and injuries they ever had since they started in 1971 were [to] those who quit the program and returned to the danger area."

McPherson estimates that some 25,000 people have been "laundered" through the Witness Protection Program. While 90 percent were Italian Mafia in the early days, he says today the breakdown is more in proportion to the diversity of the population at large.

While the film is fascinating on its own terms, it is even more compelling for the fact that it may well be a one-time peek into one of the most secretive agencies that taxpayers fund.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society