Witness safety presents problems; Local police lack resources

TELEGRAM & GAZETTE -- Luz Maria Martinez Rondeau and Jennifer Rivera had much in common.Both young women had seen violent crimes and said they were willing to take the witness stand against the accused in court. Before either had a chance to testify, however, they were gunned down to keep them silent.Mrs. Rondeau, 20, a Worcester resident, was offered police protection, but turned it down. It is not clear whether Ms. Rivera, 15, of Providence, sought such protection. Providence police say she did not, while members of her family believe she did. Now there is concern for another witness, an assistant manager who was with the manager of the Sky Bar Lounge at Il Palazzo restaurant, 100 Wall St., when the manager was fatally shot early Sunday morning during a robbery.The manager, Anthony Caggianelli, 33, of Pelham, N.H., and the assistant manager were counting receipts from Saturday night when a masked gunman burst in.In the hours after the shooting, Capt. Paul F. Campbell said police had not offered protection for the witness, a woman. As the investigation continued, Capt. Campbell and detectives working the case have declined to discuss details, including whether they offered to protect the woman.Law enforcement officials say those who witness violent crimes should be protected. Too often, however, local police departments cannot spare the resources to guard witnesses.A TRAGEDY'State Sen. Cynthia S. Creem, D-Newton, filed a measure last year that would provide funds for a statewide protection program. The bill made its way to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which is awaiting data from a commission appointed to investigate the yearly costs of such a program, according to Sean J. Kealy, legal counsel to the Legislature's Criminal Justice Committee.The commission is expected to file a report by Dec. 1.Mr. Kealy said the bill initially would set aside $100,000 to pay for a protection program.The attorney general's office would establish guidelines for providing the money for witness protection.It's just a tragedy that we spend millions to prosecute crimes, provide for defense attorneys and pay judges, but we don't provide a dime to protect witnesses who are essential elements to the criminal justice system,'' Mr. Kealy said.Ms. Rivera was fatally shot two weeks ago on the eve of the trial of Charles Pona, 19, who is accused in the shooting death of Hector Feliciano, 17, last August in Providence.SHOT WHILE SLEEPINGMrs. Rondeau died after she was shot in the head Feb. 24, 1999, as she slept in her apartment at 33 Vernon St. She had been expected to testify as a prosecution witness in the murder trial of James L. Freeman III, her former boyfriend and the father of her daughter.A Worcester man, Muhammad Sahin, 22, of 50 Litchfield St., pleaded guilty last month to second-degree murder in her death and was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 15 years. Mr. Freeman was convicted of first-degree murder in a 1994 home invasion and was sentenced to life in prison.Mr. Freeman, an alleged gang leader, also was indicted in September 1998 on a charge of soliciting the murder of Mrs. Rondeau before the home invasion trial started. The charge, still pending, stemmed from a letter Mr. Freeman allegedly wrote to Leroy Edmonds of Rutland, asking him to kill Mrs. Rondeau.While police protection appears necessary in such cases, it is a difficult undertaking for local departments.When people feel they need protection, we try to reach some sort of understanding that it would be in their own best interest,'' said Worcester Deputy Police Chief James M. Gallagher. But once you take someone into protective status you are responsible for all their personal needs.''EXCESSIVE DEMANDSA major expense is the amount of overtime involved, he said. Lodging, transportation, food and other expenses cut into a police department's budget, he said, although the Worcester district attorney's office covers some of the expenses.Another problem can be the personalities of the people being protected, according to Deputy Chief Gallagher. Some witnesses, he said, seem to act as if they are on vacation, demanding luxury accommodations and unlimited long-distance phone calls.Such demands are not met, he said. A simple motel room and a television set may be among the few amenities offered.Also, he said, if there is a long wait between the time a crime occurred and the trial, witnesses can become bored and want to return to their families and a normal lifestyle.Sometimes, they make the serious mistake of conversing with people they should not converse with and give away their location,'' the deputy chief said. It's not a simple matter of locking somebody in a room and baby-sitting them. Even though they need protection, they become their own worst enemies.''ENTIRE HOUSEHOLDSThe task isn't necessarily the protection of just one person, he noted. There are situations in which family members stay with the witness. In a few cases, the entire household is moved out of town, he said.In one case, a woman and her two young children were protected by police through the holidays. At Christmas, officers on protective duty put up a tree and the children received toys from Santa.How could we let them have Christmas with no Christmas?'' Deputy Chief Gallagher said. The guys felt obligated to do something, and they did.''But the strain of watching individuals around the clock, he said, takes its toll on officers. Members of the security team are routinely rotated to provide relief and ease frustrations.The decision to offer protection is made on a case-by-case basis, with consideration given to threats made to the witness. Sometimes the harassment takes the form of threatening an individual's children or destroying personal property.It's a logistical nightmare,'' the deputy chief said. That's putting it mildly for a small organization like this.''Massachusetts State Police protect witnesses, but only for major crimes such as murders they are investigating at the direction of a district attorney or attorney general, according to Capt. Robert J. Bird.CAN CONTINUE AFTER TRIALEven when a suspect is tried, convicted and sent to prison, protection of witnesses does not always stop, according to Providence police Capt. Jack J. Ryan. He pointed out that associates of organized crime figures and gang members could retaliate for past or expected testimony.In Rhode Island, a three-member board and the attorney general's office decide if witness protection is necessary. The board is made up of a member of the state police, a police chief and an assistant attorney general.Once someone is identified as a witness, all responsibility goes to the board,'' Capt. Ryan said.He said money for protecting the witness comes from the state, not local government. Two years ago, Rhode Island spent $338,000 on witness protection, most of that on a young girl police guarded for more than a year.The girl testified in court, but Capt. Ryan declined to discuss details of the case.SHOW UP FOR WEDDINGSThe most extensive witness protection program nationally is run by the U.S. Marshals Service.More than 7,000 witnesses and 16,000 family members have been relocated in the Witness Security Program since 1970, according to spokesman David A. Turner.We've never lost a witness in the program,'' Mr. Turner said. But when they start phoning home and showing up for weddings, they get kicked out.''

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