Start Snitching: Inside the Witness Protection Program

More than 7,500 witnesses and their families have been relocated over the years.


Oct. 26, 2007 — -- Wearing glasses and a mock turtleneck, his temples graying, Carmine Sessa looked more like a tailor calculating the hem of a suit than the former consigliere of the Colombo crime family.

The years he'd spent in the witness protection program had obviously been good to the middle-aged former mobster. Appearing relaxed and physically fit, muscles bulging under his shirt, Sessa emerged from hiding to take the stand in Brooklyn Supreme Court Thursday as one of the chief prosecution witnesses in the government's case against former FBI supervisor Lindley DeVecchio, who is accused of helping another mobster commit four murders in the 1980s and 1990s.

Sessa calmly described his life of burglaries and bank robberies, as well as his involvement in 13 homicides, including the murder of Colombo mobster Vincent "Jimmy" Angelina, who was lured to a house to be killed by Sessa.

"When he came in the basement door, somebody pushed him and he knew something was wrong. He ran upstairs and he ran right into me. And I shot Jimmy Angelina," Sessa said.

The testimony shed some light on Sessa's time in the witness protection program, by which the government relocates witnesses to crimes and their families to protect them from retribution. Since 1971, the program has relocated more than 7,500 witnesses and more than 9,500 family members, according to the U.S. Marshal Service. No one in the program who has followed the security rules has ever been harmed while under protection.

Among the famous examples of survivors is Henry Hill, the gangster whose story of life in the mob was turned into director Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas."

After his arrest in 1980, Hill became an informant, and his testimony led to 50 convictions. When Hill, his wife and two children entered the witness protection program, they changed their names and were relocated to several locations in Omaha, Neb., Independence, Ky., and Redmond, Wash.

After several arrests on narcotics-related charges, Hill and his wife were expelled from the program in the early 1990s, and the couple soon divorced. He currently lives in Malibu, Calif., with his fiancée, Lisa Caserta, sells paintings on eBay and is opening a restaurant called Wiseguys tonight in West Haven, Conn.

Another mobster, Frank Cullotta, an infamous member of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang who was played by actor Frank Vincent in "Casino," entered the program in 1983. After he chose a new name and underwent a psychological test, he was handed a birth certificate and a new Social Security card along with some cash, and he relocated with his family. For a Chicago mobster, life in the sticks could be difficult.

"It was boring as hell," Cullotta told "I lived in Mobile, Ala. It's so small you see yourself coming and going. I lied and told the feds that I'd been spotted just so they could move me to Biloxi. ... Back then, it was more rural down there. They all used to say to me, 'What the hell you doing down here, Yankee?'"

"He was like a fish out of water," recalled Dennis Arnoldy, a retired FBI agent who'd handled Cullotta. "These guys were making lots of money, buying cars and jewelry, and here he is in some small town and we're paying him $1,300 a month."

And the program has not been without its close calls.

"I was flying out of Chicago once and I got on the plane and saw two hit men get on right after me," Cullotta remembered. "One guy looked at me, he couldn't believe it either. He was in a state of shock. They sat five seats in back of me. And I got off that plane, went back inside and stood behind a pole. They followed me off the plane and I could hear them talking. One guy was telling the other guy, 'Forget about it. Let's get back on the plane.' And they left. That was close -- I could have gotten whacked."

Cullotta, whose life was recently chronicled by author Dennis N. Griffin in the book "Cullotta: The Life of a Chicago Criminal, Las Vegas Mobster, and Government Witness," occasionally gets approached by people who recognize him. "I just laugh," he said. "I was sitting in a restaurant the other day and someone came up to me and said, 'Hey, you're Frank Cullotta,' and I said, "No, that's not me."

In a twist made for Hollywood, Cullotta and Arnoldy are now close friends who keep in touch every week. Cullotta calls Arnoldy his best friend, and Arnoldy said the ex-mobster is "a poster boy for the Witness Security Program, and once he got out of it, he's become a successful small businessman and stayed out of trouble -- knock on wood."

Not that Cullotta doesn't let his mind wander back to his old life of crime. "If I'm in a bank, I look around and I see how they've changed all the alarm systems," he said. "And you think how you could overcome that. It's a game I play with myself. But I couldn't try that sh-- now. I'm an old man. I can't run that fast."

Others who've left the program haven't been so lucky. Mario "Sonny" Riccobene, a Philadelphia mobster, was jailed on racketeering charges but made a deal with the government and testified in 1984 at the trial of murdered underboss Frank Monte. In the early 1990s, without explanation, Sonny Riccobene left the federal witness program and returned to South Philadelphia, where has was soon killed on the orders of a mob boss.

Sessa was arrested on the steps of New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral on Palm Sunday in 1993. Ten minutes later, he began cooperating and continued to assist the government when he realized that he faced a life sentence if convicted of his crimes. Within months, he was debriefed by FBI agents Jeffrey Thomlinson and Howard Leadbetter, and started testifying at several major mob trials. Sessa ended up serving only 6½ years.

"That's a pretty good deal for all those murders, don't you think," quipped DeVecchio's defense attorney, Mark Bederow, at DeVecchio's trial Thursday. Sessa didn't answer.

Another reason for Sessa's decision to rat out his former pals was a desire to avenge the murders of two of his closest friends.

During his testimony, he described how angry he was at Colombo capo Gregory Scarpa Jr. for ordering the murder of Sessa's "close, personal friend" Dominic "Joey Brewster" DeDomenico. Sessa, who reminisced about robbing banks, killing people and getting arrested alongside DeDomenico, said, "I was very upset about the murder of Joey Brewster."

When Sessa was ordered to murder another friend in the early '80s, he refused and went on the lam to the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania.

Upon his return, he was called to a sit-down with Colombo boss Carmine Persico, who asked him for an explanation. Sessa said he remained calm and replied diplomatically, "I'm just honored to be here in front of you people." Persico later praised him for his loyalty.

Upon his release on bail in 1997, Sessa was relocated with his family as part of the protection program. Prone to depression and suicidal thoughts, he pleaded guilty two years later to terrorizing his wife and son after his release and admitted that he had punched out his wife several times. In 2006, Sessa signed himself out of the federal witness program and disappeared, according to mob reporter Jerry Capeci.

Asked why he was testifying at the DeVecchio trial, Sessa replied calmly, "I'm just passing through. They asked me to come."

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