by Renee Henning
Skip was walking down a Boston street when he heard gunfire - close. He and his buddy Benny watched in disbelief as the victim collapsed to the ground. It was June 1983 and the first time the two young men had seen someone die. They recognized one of the shooters. Quinn, a notorious crime boss, was the leader.
Suddenly the killers realized that there were witnesses. Skip and Benny fled, barely escaping more bullets. One assassin tried to run them down with a car.
The friends raced in the dark through streets and alleys until they came upon a construction site. They scaled the fence and hid there. Since Skip liked to get mistaken for an Ivy Leaguer, he was, as usual, wearing preppie clothing. He emerged from the dirt pile hours later with his blazer and khaki pants torn and muddy. Benny, dressed in the casual style of the South Boston neighborhood of their birth, was also filthy.
When they approached Benny’s home after 4 a.m., there was an unfamiliar vehicle parked nearby. Two males sat inside, not talking. Skip and Benny turned and ran.
For three days the buddies hid out. Word spread that Quinn had announced a reward for their capture dead or alive. An informant heard a rumor about the reason for the bounty offer and tipped off the F.B.I. Quinn’s goons and federal agents searched frantically for the fugitives. The feds found them first.
For years the United States government had been amassing evidence on Quinn’s illegal activities. It finally had two witnesses to describe in court his personal involvement in murder - if they were brave enough to testify.
The feds offered Skip and Benny the safety of the Witness Security Program. They would be relocated to another part of the nation and receive new identities. In return, they had to agree to take the stand against Quinn. Because of their short life expectancy in Massachusetts, both men accepted the deal.
Skip asked to be sent with his pal to any place warm. He got assigned to Texas and Benny to a different state. Neither man was told where the other was headed. This improved the odds that at least one of them would survive Quinn’s manhunt and testify.
As the plane took off for Fort Worth, Skip thought about everything he was leaving behind. It included his low-wage job and his girlfriend, a Harvard student. (Although Skip had never attended college, he had convinced her he was a Yale graduate.) It also included the likelihood of jail. (While he had never been arrested, the police were closing in on him for selling fake driver’s licenses.) In addition, it included a mountain of debts. He was glad to go.
Texas was a different world. A U.S. marshal drove Skip through vast plains and over mountains to a town in ranch country. Initially Skip found the Texas landscape empty and boring (and had trouble adjusting to the scorching summer). A lifelong city boy, he looked at ranch country and said, “Where is everything?!”
The feds gave Skip a different identity, including a new social security number and a clean credit history. He was living at government expense but was supposed to get a job eventually. He took advantage of the pristine credit history to sign up for various credit cards and loans.
Eager for more money, the protected witness expanded beyond his former sideline of forging driver’s licenses. Having observed how the feds created a complete new identity for him, he now produced a variety of counterfeit documents for sale.
Skip had decided that in Texas he would reinvent himself as a cowboy. It was a rocky start. The first time he tried to mount a horse, he climbed up the wrong side and spooked the animal. Undeterred, he took lessons and became an adequate rider.
He bought himself full cowboy regalia, including woolly chaps, a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, a fringed shirt, a belt with an outsized silver buckle, and spurs. In his opinion, the outfit made him look as if he had just returned from riding the range. However, when he sauntered into a bar in his new garb, the patrons burst out laughing.
To fit in better, he retired the chaps, cut the long fringe off the shirt, rolled the clothes in the dirt for a worn appearance, and sold the buckle and spurs. He also altered some of his habits. Accustomed to drinking cheap wine, he switched to beer. He began rooting for the Dallas Cowboys, even against his prior favorite team, the New England Patriots. In addition, he started cussing Texas-style, though it took him a while to get the cadence right.
For a month Skip limped in his leather cowboy boots. The high heels made him wobble, and the pointed toes pinched his feet. He switched to higher-priced ostrich boots with low heels and square toes. Later he paid even more for crocodile cowboy boots.
Over time the man made friends and began dating a former rodeo queen. He spent freely on her and on himself. He purchased his-and-her horses and hand-tooled, silver-inlaid saddles. He also replaced his secondhand car with a fancy pickup truck. Since Skip was supposed to pass as someone with a modest income, he claimed his more extravagant buys were funded by a rich, doting aunt. Eventually he maxed out his credit cards and stopped repaying his loans.
Skip had assumed that Quinn’s trial for murder and racketeering would commence within a year. However, at the defendant’s request, the trial date was repeatedly postponed. Allegedly, the mobster required extra time to prepare his defense. In reality, he needed more time to track down and wipe out the two witnesses for the most serious charge, premeditated murder.
One day the protected witness learned from a television show about a shocking homicide in Missouri. The gruesomeness of the crime had sent the story nationwide. The target’s name meant nothing to Skip, but the face on the screen told him everything. It was Benny.
According to the broadcast, the victim was tortured before dying, and his tongue was cut off. The mutilation was a message to Skip. He feared the same fate if he showed up at Quinn’s trial. Yet he was the prosecution’s only hope for a guilty verdict on the Boston murder.
U.S. marshals had warned Skip against going home, even for the funeral of a loved one. Now they expected Quinn to post spies at Benny’s funeral. Skip’s handler ordered him not to telephone anyone about his best friend’s death because Quinn had traced people through calls.
Skip listened to the warnings and took a huge risk. He violated witness protection rules by phoning Benny’s mother to comfort her. Over the years she had been kinder to him than his own mom.
The woman was pathetically grateful for the call. She urged him, for his own safety, never to return to New England. She also told him that the bounty Quinn had put on his head had tripled.
As the date for the protected witness to testify drew near, something unexpected occurred. He had traveled to an area along the Rio Grande to drum up more customers for his false driver’s licenses and documents. That night he saw a small plane landing in the middle of nowhere and stopped to watch. The men who unloaded the cargo noticed him, grabbed their guns, and fired. Skip had stumbled on a shipment by Mexican drug smugglers.
He sped away in his bullet-pocked pickup. Convinced that the shooters had seen his license plate and would hunt him down, he drove directly to a police station.
The receptionist asked Skip to identify himself, and he hesitated. Then, instead of responding with his witness protection name, he gave the name on one of the phony driver’s licenses in his truck. He had prepared a complete dossier for that fictitious person.
From police mug shots, Skip was able to identify three of the criminals, including a local man and the son of a Mexican drug lord. When the authorities raided the local man’s home the next day, they unearthed bags of heroin.
Skip offered to testify in the international narcotics case, provided he be placed in the federal Witness Security Program. The government quickly agreed.
However, Texas had transformed Skip. He had come to love the outdoor life, Texas’s peaks and plains, and the immense, overarching sky. Faced with leaving, he asked to be transferred to a state with mountains and wide-open spaces. The feds picked Alaska.
Two weeks after Skip was bundled off to the North, a U.S. marshal arrived in Texas to collect him for his testimony against Quinn. Federal agents, unaware that he was hiding under a different name in the Witness Security Program in Alaska, searched throughout Texas for him in vain. He never testified against the gangster.
Alaska turned out to be another seismic change. Skip had to study how to pass for an Alaskan and how to endure the blood-chilling cold. After some missteps, he succeeded in portraying himself as a wealthy, sports-minded frontiersman.
Certain things stayed the same. In Alaska the protected witness lived at government expense. The feds had given him his third identity, with a different social security number and a spotless credit history. He used the bogus background to sign up for credit cards and loans.
To get more money, he demanded and received a larger government stipend. He also founded a discreet company. It taught carefully screened clients how to craft a whole new identity.
Skip started spending lavishly on himself and on his latest girlfriend, a former Miss Anchorage. He bought his-and-her monogrammed snowmobiles, switched from a winter jacket to an expensive fur parka, and overpaid for a blue-eyed Alaskan husky descended from an Iditarod winner. He made friends and traveled with some to remote parts of the state to hunt and fish. He also began taking pilot lessons.
His biggest purchase, made shortly before he was scheduled to testify against the drug cartel, was a hydroplane. His buddies and clients have not seen him or his puppy lately. When last spotted, Skip was flying the plane south, toward a destination known only to him.