|Magazine of the UW-River Falls Alumni Association
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A Life Changing Program. Literally.
As head of the federal Witness Security Program, alumnus Stephen T’Kach makes it his business to transform the lives of those whose testimony in federal criminal court make them targets.
by Joe Tougas
He doesn’t ride in limos or helicopters.
But other than that, Stephen T’Kach says, movies and TV shows have portrayed his line of work fairly well.
T’Kach is the director of the federal Witness Security Program which, as we all know from The Godfather and other mobster movies, is a highly secretive service that ushers witnesses out of harm’s way by giving them new names, new hometowns and new stories to tell their neighbors. The Witness Security Program, a division of the United States Marshals Service, basically requires nothing less than reinventing a person’s life.
“It is truly a program of last resort,” says T’Kach, a 1982 UW-River Falls graduate. “It entails packing up and moving from the neighborhood you know to somewhere in the U.S. or maybe elsewhere where no one knows you and, hopefully, you don’t know anyone. You’re going to change your name. Your family members going on the program with you will change their names. You’ll never return for weddings or bar mitzvahs or graduations or funerals–except your own.”
The Witness Security Program was created in 1970 by T’Kach’s predecessor, Jerry Shur, a federal prosecutor assigned to work on cases against organized crime. He found his cases getting dropped because witnesses were too frightened for their safety to testify. The program allowed them to stay safe–but at the expense of their identities, locations and relationships.
Because of its drastic requirements, few actually use the service. T’Kach says that of the 50,000 federal prosecutions per year, only about 150 will enroll in and use the Witness Security Program. But the days of helping ex-mobsters hide out are waning. Most of the witnesses who use the program today, T’Kach says, are gang members. Organized crime accounts for only 10 percent of cases, while gang members take up 66 percent. The remainder of cases involves militia groups, white-collar criminals, drug traffickers and terrorists. For those who do want protection, their situation has to meet four criteria, beginning with the gravity of the case. The case in which they’re testifying needs to be a significant case for the government, T’Kach says, because it will cost taxpayers anywhere between $80,000 to $100,000 per protected witness.
Other criteria: The testimony has to be vital to the case, not tangential; there must be a legitimate threat to the witness’ safety and the witness cannot be a threat to his or her new community. “If they’re a threat, we won’t take them,” T’Kach says.
Once a witness is in the program, T’Kach’s office can provide them with employment, housing and even a background story. Some who initially want the protection change their minds. “When you explain the program to them, that permanent change, that permanent exile, they just back out. They can’t contemplate themselves being picked up by U.S. Marshals, relocated to a new community and hanging out for the rest of their lives without ever seeing their family again.”
T’Kach grew up in Minneapolis. Losing both parents at an early age had him working to pay for his college education at River Falls. Throughout college, he lived and worked in nearby Hudson. He would take time off school for work, and he never lived on campus. But his experience at UW-River Falls was rewarding and effective, he says.
“I always felt the professors at River Falls were always available to you,” T’Kach says. “You might have to set up an appointment, but you could also stick your head in the office and if they were available they’d talk to you. They didn’t have caseloads like a Big 10 school. It was a nice environment. You felt like you could study and get answers to your questions. And your professors were always teaching. We never had a teaching assistant teach a course. It was always a professor. “They talk about degrees from big schools, but I’m very happy with my degree. It set me up well with my studies not only for law but for my career.”
From River Falls, he moved on to law studies at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. He joined the U.S. Department of Justice in 1990 as a trial lawyer in the department’s electronic surveillance division, and two years later he was promoted to director of that unit. In 1994, he was selected to replace Shur, who was retiring from the Witness Security program he created. While the success rate of the program is 100 percent for those who follow the rules, there are some who violate the terms.
“Our biggest breach is re-contacting the danger area or returning to the danger area,” T’Kach says. “Or they just sign out voluntarily. They don’t like the rules, and they decide to bail.” For many, the incentive to stay quiet is strong. “A lot of these guys have not only testified against friends and acquaintances, but in some cases have testified against family members. We’ve had witnesses testify against brothers, sons, parents, grandparents, children–the whole works. And it would be very difficult for them to return to the danger area without perhaps being injured or killed.”
The program does more than hide people and their families. In addition to helping find homes and work, it can also jump-start an education, if the witness is willing. With so many uneducated gang members involved, the Witness Security Program will help them obtain a high school diploma or GED. “We want them to be productive members of society,” T’Kach says. “That’s the objective.” The rate of a witness re-offending, he adds, is less than 20 percent, compared with the national rate of two-thirds re-offending. “A lot of them are taking advantage of an opportunity.”
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