Jackee Taylor still remembers when her mother woke her up in the middle of the night and U.S. Marshals were telling their family they had to leave their home immediately.
“The marshals were trying to hurry, hurry, hurry, and we were all crying,” Taylor said. “It was pretty scary.”
She was just 7 years old at the time, and it was her and her family’s introduction to the federal Witness Security Program, commonly called “witness protection” or “WITSEC.”
“We were ushered into black vans and I remember stopping and switching vans, and that’s about all I remember,” she said.
It’s a program shrouded in secrecy, run by the U.S. Marshals Service. Witnesses in danger are protected, relocated and given new identities in exchange for turning state’s evidence against organized crime, cartels or terrorist organizations.
Most of what people know about the program is based on Hollywood depictions, but Taylor said her real-life experience was far from anything seen in the movies.
She says she, her two siblings and their mother were taken from their home in Cleveland, Ohio, and relocated to a motel next to a casino in Billings, Montana. Being in front of the motel today brings back a flood of emotions.
“It still just ticks me off looking at this place,” Taylor said. “Not exactly the best place to put a mother and her three children to start their lives over again.”
Most of the more than 18,000 people in witness protection are not witnesses to crimes but actually family members of witnesses, some of them children.
In Taylor’s case, her father, Clarence “Butch” Crouch, a vice president of one of the most infamous Hell’s Angels chapters in the country during the 1970s, took a plea deal on a murder charge and turned state’s evidence against his fellow bikers in the 1980s. He was even called to testify at a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
“We pulled up and stopped. Machine gun opened up, and started shooting,” Crouch said during his testimony, hidden behind a screen. “And I shot up the driveway and I hit somebody which is more or less why I’m sitting here, because it turned out to be a 17-year-old kid.”
After nearly two years of testifying, Crouch went to prison and Taylor said she never saw her father again. After his release, he started a new life with a new name. Taylor and her family, still in witness protection, were left to pick up the pieces.
“I had nobody to talk to,” she said. “We were completely cut off from all of our family in Cleveland … and now I didn’t have them and I had this new life that I had to adjust to.”
Taylor said she had a difficult childhood trying to figure out who she was.
“That was rough,” she said. “I was suicidal quite a few times.”
She thinks she never should have been put in the WITSEC program to begin with.
“I don’t think children should be put on the program, period,” Taylor said. “I think that they should either be put with family or almost they’d be better off in foster care, I really do.”
But Michael Prout, the head of the WITSEC program, disagrees.
“The individuals entering into the Witness Security Program their parents are in danger. The children are therefore in danger,” he told “Nightline” in a rare on-camera interview.
Prout said he could not confirm nor deny anyone’s existence in WITSEC, but he did say kids are better off in the program.
“We are actually the heroes that come in the night and save them from that bad spot,” he said. “There are opportunities which we afford in the Witness Security Program that they would not get by growing up in a terrorist organization or mafia or cartel. They have an opportunity to live.”
Taylor said the Marshals gave her documents to support her new identity -- with the exception of one that most people take for granted.
“We were never issued birth certificates,” she said. “It’s not part of the program … I will never have a birth certificate.”
So when her WITSEC-given passport was lost, Taylor said she had no way to prove her U.S. citizenship. Then one day she received a letter in the mail denying medical coverage for her children because she couldn’t prove her citizenship.
“And I was on the phone all day to everyone I could think of. The governor, the lieutenant governor,” she said. “I called the marshals a few times … I called everywhere.”
She said after exhausting all options, she decided to essentially walk away from the WITSEC program and go public with her story, putting herself at possible risk, to help her children.
“My children were suffering because of it,” she said. “I had to do this.”
Five years later, Taylor said she finally received her replacement passport from the Marshals. Afterwards, she returned to Cleveland and made amends with the Hell’s Angels chapter her father testified against, where she learned she had nothing to fear.
Her incredible story is now part of an upcoming documentary by Rumur. An unexpected result of Taylor going public is now other children who say they are in witness protection have reached out to her through Facebook for help and guidance.
One of them was “CJ,” who said he and his family entered WITSEC when he was 11 years old.
“We weren’t going through schools. We were living in motels,” he said.
He said the family left the program when CJ was 14, but he was too young to realize WITSEC had changed his name and social security number back to the one he was born with. He says his multiple identities has led to an array of issues that continue to haunt him to this day.
CJ is 38 years old now and is still dependent on a family member, stranded in rural Western Pennsylvania.
“He has no driver's license because PennDot has flagged him as a fraud suspect,” Taylor said. “He can’t get student loans. He can’t apply for housing … anything that he has to use his identity for … he’s going to have problems with.”
One of the issues Taylor and CJ bonded over was that they both say they were never offered counseling by the U.S. Marshals when they were children. Two years after Taylor entered WITSEC, the program was reformed to ensure members are given psychological support if they ask for it.
“A child of a person who is a criminal, they have certain issues before they even get started…. Psychological support is critical,” Prout said.
But even though CJ entered the WITSEC program years after that reform, he says he and his family were never offered therapy.
Taylor said she worries about CJ’s mental health after what he’s been through.
“I don’t like to see people hurting and he’s in the same position that I was in. And mine was rectified and I believe that there is a way to rectify his also,” she said. “I just don’t want him to go too far into a dark place…. I’ve seen suicides on the WPP. There’s two I can document.”
One of them was her own father. Three years ago, he shot and killed his wife and stepson, then burned down their home, before turning the gun on himself.
Taylor advised CJ to try to find court documents proving his family was in witness protection and that his multiple identities were not his fault, which he was eventually able to do. CJ later moved to Billings to live with Taylor and her family as the two continue to fight to get his life straightened out.
“It’s amazing to have the support I do, even if it’s from one person,” CJ said. “That’s more than I ever had.”