Incognito, Inc.: Arizona’s Secret, Starring Role in the Federal Witness Protection Program

Dawson FearnowSeptember 1, 2023
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Illustration By Jeffrey Smith
Illustration By Jeffrey Smith

Arizona has played a secret but starring role in witness protection and relocation efforts since the earliest days of 20th-century organized crime – and from the beginning, it’s literally been the bomb.

“What are we gonna do with Lou?” 

That was the question a group of FBI agents in Chicago were grappling with back in the late 1960s, after their informant, a former bookie named Louis “Lou” Bombacino, helped them strike a massive blow against the Mafia. 

Bombacino’s testimony had sent the boss of the feared Chicago Outfit, John “Jackie the Lackey” Cerone, and several of his top lieutenants to prison for running an illegal gambling racket. But now Bombacino was a marked man across the Windy City.

So they looked for someplace safe to stash Lou and his young family far from Chicago and the other mobbed-up cities on the East Coast. Someplace where he could get a fresh start, with a new identity and a new legal job – and find little chance of running into an old acquaintance who might rat him out. 

Someplace like Buckeye, Arizona, apparently.

Bombacino was not the first mobster “retired” to sunny Arizona – nor was he remotely the last – but his relocation to a sun-drenched tract-home neighborhood in the West Valley did usher in a new, modern era for the state and its outsized status as a witness-protection hotbed. Soon after his arrival, Congress authorized the United States Federal Witness Protection Program, creating a formal, but never officially acknowledged, pipeline of imperiled mob tattletales to the desert.

Rumors tell of former “made men” working in Petrified Forest rock shops in Navajo County, hiding in multi-million-dollar penthouses atop the Scottsdale Waterfront and raising kids in Mesa. However, in a paradoxical twist familiar to any paleontologist, Arizona’s unverified role in witness relocation is something that can only be proven with corpses – or, at least, failures. And so we have reams of car bombings and assorted executions, and tales of self-sabotaged witnesses like famed hit man Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, who may have finally learned to lay low after his own criminal racket in Arizona came crashing down.

The reasons for Arizona’s appeal as a secret storage locker for some of the nation’s foremost criminals are largely a matter of speculation, but the appeal has always been there – even in the early days, when potential witnesses took on the challenge of disappearing without government help. It was a fact made plain to everyone in the orange-tree-studded suburbs of 12th Street and Bethany Home Road in Phoenix in 1955, when –  right before 11 a.m. – boom went the dynamite.

Case File No. 1: The Day Willie Nelson Died
November 4, 1955

Forty-five minutes after her husband had been blown up in front of her, his mangled body on the lawn beneath a sheet, less half a leg and a hand, Laurie Nelson rocked to and fro as she spoke to the reporter from The Arizona Republic.

“He turned to wave as he got in the truck, he always waved,” she said. “I waved back. It happened so fast.” 

Nelson had looked away from the window during the explosion and was immediately pelted with glass blown into the kitchen. “I don’t know what it sounded like,” she told the reporter. “It was just an explosion. I ran out and there he lay.” 

Dressed in a cream-colored house coat, a scarf tied around her graying hair, her shoulders shook as she drew deeply on her cigarette. “And I touched him.”

Phoenix was a small but fast-growing city when Laurie and her husband, Willie, a “retired rancher,” rode into town in 1944. And no, Willie was not related to the Willie Nelson. He wasn’t even really named Nelson. That was his wife’s maiden name. Willie’s real last name was Bioff, and he hadn’t made his money in cattle. Willie was a mobster – and a pretty famous one.

Born in Chicago, Bioff climbed the crime ladder as a pimp and enforcer before being shipped to Los Angeles in the 1930s to squeeze the Chicago Outfit’s newest extortion targets, the Hollywood studios. According to his obituary in The New York Times, Bioff raked in more than $20 million in 2023 dollars before being charged with tax evasion. Facing a decade in jail, Bioff flipped on his fellow mobsters for a lesser sentence and fled to Phoenix upon his release. 

For 11 years, Bioff (pictured, right) lived in Phoenix in the guise of a wealthy ex-cattleman, favoring Western-style suits and driving his Ford pickup Downtown weekdays to check the stock market – a routine, ultimately, that undid him. Although no one was convicted of his murder, the message was clear: Bargaining with the federal government was futile, because the Chicago Outfit could always nix the deal.

Two years after the Bioff bombing, President Eisenhower created a special task force to dismantle the “enemy from within.” Although the U.S. Witness Protection Program didn’t officially launch until 1971, by the early 1960s the FBI was testing a beta version of the program in Arizona with the aforementioned Lou Bombacino. Once again, the results were an explosive failure.

Photos Courtesy The Arizona Republic
Photos Courtesy The Arizona Republic
Photo Courtesy The Arizona Republic
Case File No. 2: The Chicago Outfit Never Forgets
October 7, 1975

Bombacino knew the killers on his trail were getting closer. But the former bookie had beaten long odds before, hiding out in Arizona for nearly a decade after the FBI relocated him and his family to then-tiny Buckeye, gave him a new identity and even set him up with a warehouse job at Arizona Public Service (APS).

But Bombacino never quite cottoned on to the role of respectable family man.

He played high-stakes poker seven nights a week, sold heroin, “resold” new TVs and bragged about beating a friend who’d damaged his car to a pulp. We know this because Bombacino was caught peddling stolen APS equipment. The charges were dropped, “but because he was as big a fool as he was an asshole, [Bombacino] decided to sue APS and the sheriff’s office,” former Republic reporter Charles Kelly, who covered the case, told an interviewer in 2016. “And the FBI had approached him and said, ‘You’re in danger.’ Because they were afraid he was going to get his head blown off.”

But Bombacino didn’t want to uproot his wife and teenage son again. Plus, he had a mistress to think about, not to mention other “lady friends” he would take on Las Vegas party trips, or squire to his favorite jewelry store so they could pick out a watch. “I should get something for the wife, too,” Bombacino told the owner, paying for everything with cash peeled from a fat roll of bills, according to the investigators’ hand-typed notes in his Tempe Police file.

Eventually, Bombacino moved to an anonymous apartment in Tempe, where he remained conspicuous. He favored flashy shirts and slacks from Hanny’s Menswear in Downtown Phoenix, and drove a weeks-old Lincoln Continental Mark IV, which would strike any acquaintance as curious given his limited income as an unemployed warehouse hand.

On the morning of October 7, 1975, Bombacino slid behind the wheel of his Lincoln at exactly 8:39 a.m., which we know from his shattered wristwatch.

Backing out of his apartment’s parking space, Bombacino tapped the brakes. The car exploded in what a witness driving on the nearby Superstition Freeway described as “a large ball of flame and large pieces of debris flying.” Other drivers came to a screeching halt as a wheel and tire crash-landed onto the highway. Bombacino’s assassins had molded a slab of military-grade plastic explosives around the car’s rear axle, hurling hunks of the 19-foot-long, 5,200-pound land yacht a quarter mile away.

UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections
UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections

Bombacino’s naked, smoldering corpse was found slumped halfway out the window, his clothes incinerated down to his shoes. Somehow, his ever-present roll of bills totaling several thousand dollars was recovered intact and returned to his widow.

Initially front-page news, the bombing swiftly faded from the headlines. According to Kelly, “Police quickly figured out who he was, that he’d been given the name Joseph Nardi, but was still involved with criminal activity. By the time my story ran [the day after the bombing], it said ‘mob informer,’ not just some mad bomber out there killing people indiscriminately.”

But Bombacino’s untimely demise certainly drew the attention of a U.S. Marshals Service team in Washington, D.C., overseeing a program to protect witnesses like Bombacino. Although they quickly determined Bombacino had gone into hiding before the federal witness protection program, colloquially known as the Witness Security Program (WITSEC), officially launched, and was thus the FBI’s problem, his bombing reinforced the need for a new weapon to counter organized crime.

In his memoir, WITSEC: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program, the program’s founder, attorney Gerald Shur, relates the shocking item that inspired him as a young U.S. Department of Justice investigator: a crime scene photo from the 1950s of a woman who’d had her throat slit because she’d been working as a police informant. “Not satisfied to simply kill her, the murderer had mutilated her body by cutting it open from throat to navel. He’d then yanked out several of her internal organs, leaving them displayed on her abdomen.” A vicious and on-the-nose threat to anyone else thinking about spilling their guts to the police.

Shur eventually rose to lead the Justice Department’s organized crime unit, launching an early version of WITSEC in the mid-1960s. The program was codified in  The Organized Crime Control Act of 1970.

The U.S. Marshals Service prefers not to talk about the program publicly, but they will send a fact sheet to pesky reporters who ask about it, highlighting a few points they’d like to clarify.

Point one: Although people may call it “Witness Protection,” the marshals prefer WITSEC. Point two: Out of the more than 19,000 witnesses and family members who’ve entered the program since 1971, “no Witness Security Program participant, following program guidelines, has been harmed or killed while under the active protection of the U.S. Marshals Service.” Note the careful wording.

The program generally works like it does in the movies. Witnesses who would otherwise be too scared to testify against a dangerous suspect are offered around-the-clock security during the trial. Afterward, they are given new legal identities, free housing and other assistance until they secure a job. In return, the witnesses agree to cut off direct contact with everyone they’ve known and relocate to a far-off place of the government’s choosing.

The program was beset with problems and public skepticism from the outset – a fact that compelled Shur, ironically, to speak about it with the media, mostly to defend its shadowy tactics. One particularly high-profile failure involved a witness relocated to New Mexico who beat his wife to death with a hammer, then went on a drug-fueled multi-state spree, killing four additional victims before being apprehended.

In an interview granted to Republic investigative reporter Robert Anglin, Shur conceded a troubling fact: Up to 95 percent of the witnesses in WITSEC are criminals in their own right. But he pointed out that only about 20 percent will re-offend, which is half the rate of non-WITSEC convicts.

Having reported for nearly a decade on the WITSEC program, Anglin pressed Shur on the program’s Arizona history. One specific question: Why is the state such an apparently popular place to house turncoat mobsters?

Anglin already knew one reason: Phoenix is home to one of the first specialized prisons built by the feds to let witnesses like Sammy the Bull serve out their reduced sentences in secrecy.

Another reason, evidently, was simple geography. “Shur said he built the program to help prosecute Mafia cases, although today it is used to protect witnesses in terrorism, white-collar fraud and other organized-crime cases,” says Anglin, who still works at the Republic as one of its top crime investigators. “So, it really didn’t have anything to do with Arizona, except for the fact that most of these mobsters lived on the East Coast, or maybe Chicago or Florida. So, Arizona seemed like a safely remote place at the time.”

Anglin suspects Arizona might be getting less popular for WITSEC relocations, especially as the focus has shifted to international drug cartels, often based just across the border. But following the reverse calculus of witness protection, we’ll never know unless something goes explosively wrong.

More often than not, at least over the past 20 years, it’s been the witness himself that’s lit the fuse.

Based on map published in The Arizona Republic on June 25, 1978
Based on map published in The Arizona Republic on June 25, 1978
Case File No. 3: Sammy Signs Up
April 19, 1995

The black helicopter swooped over the guard towers of the Federal Correctional Institution in Phoenix at exactly 7:30 a.m. Hovering within sight of the two-story Mesa Unit, a sharpshooter inside the aircraft scanned the scene for targets as an armored personnel carrier roared into the prison yard and raced past the second set of razor-wire fences separating the super-secure “prison within a prison.” Six automatic weapons-armed commandos wearing black jumpsuits and face hoods jumped out of the APC and stormed inside.

Descending upon an open cell, the squad tossed a bulletproof vest to the prisoner inside and hustled him out. Speeding through the open prison gates, four more cars swarmed the APC, forming a tight convoy all the way to Luke Air Force Base, where a Learjet awaited, engines running. Forming a human shield, the commandos transferred the prisoner onto the jet. Within minutes, the Learjet was headed somewhere so secret only four people knew its destination.

And that place was… Scottsdale, Arizona. Not 50 miles away.

Thus Sammy the Bull, a man who’s admitted to 19 murders, entered witness protection. His testimony – offered in exchange for a drastically reduced, five-year sentence – had already put 36 of his former Mafia pals in prison, including New York City’s then-“Boss of Bosses” John Gotti. But because Gravano was about to be released from prison, he was a liability. “He had become too famous for [us] to risk losing him,” Shur wrote in his memoir. “If the mob murdered him, other mobsters would be scared to testify.”

By agreeing to join WITSEC, Gravano was offered lifetime protection. He and his family were secretly relocated to a Scottsdale apartment, which may seem strange considering he’d been serving his prison sentence in Phoenix. But at the time, no one knew.

For a while, Gravano’s situation was working. But as did many in the WITSEC program, Gravano found it hard to keep his nose clean.

The “Disappeared”

Photos Courtesy
Photos Courtesy
William Bioff
circa 1936
Louis Bombacino
circa 1964
Sammy Gravano
Frank Gioia Jr.

Five years after Gravano’s release and relocation, Rich Robertson, then an investigative reporter for KPHO/CBS-5 in Phoenix, received a tip that Sammy the Bull was about to be arrested in Phoenix. Robertson was the only TV reporter on the scene as the middle-aged mobster, with gray-flecked hair and bright white sneakers, was taken into custody and charged with running an MDMA distribution ring. Ultimately, Gravano was sentenced to 20 years in jail, serving all but two years before being released in 2017. Now in his late 70s, Gravano lives in the Phoenix area. Although he did an on-camera interview with FOX 10 anchor John Hook in 2021, Gravano did not respond to a PHOENIX interview request.

Robertson, who left journalism in 2000 and runs a private investigation firm in Mesa, says Sammy is by no means the lone mob hideaway in Arizona. “I’ve been encountering people in WITSEC since back in the ’80s, when someone contacted [me] saying he was a WITSEC member, and he was pissed off because he felt like the U.S. Marshals, and the way they ran the program, were putting people in danger.” As proof, the man showed him an envelope he’d been sent with “U.S. Marshals/Witness Security” in the return address, a potentially deadly breach of security protocols. Robertson was never able to nail down the story, but Shur later confirmed similar incidents in his memoir, attributing the mistakes to budget cuts.

“Another time, I came across a guy in Winslow during the course of an investigation, and the U.S. Marshals had set him up in a Petrified Forest rock shop,” Robertson says. “Another was working in a restaurant, so I became aware that Arizona was a popular place to bring people, and they were scattered around working in all sorts of places.”

Robertson should know. As a TV reporter, he cracked the case of “Frank Capri,” aka Frank Gioia Jr., yet another murderer hiding in plain sight in Arizona thanks to WITSEC. A “made man” in New York City’s Genovese family, Gioia Jr. is back in jail thanks in part to Robertson, but also to the dogged efforts of Anglin, who publicly revealed his real identity in 2017.

Anglin did not blow the whistle on Gioia Jr. out of malice. While supposedly living in law-abiding anonymity in Arizona, the gangster was fleecing multiple victims of tens of millions of dollars through a series of scams tied to restaurants partnered with Toby Keith and Rascal Flatts (the musicians were simply paid a naming rights fee and were not involved in the scams). Gioia Jr., who once lived in a luxury high-rise overlooking downtown Scottsdale, closed his final restaurant venture in Phoenix’s Arcadia neighborhood in 2020, soon after the paper started asking questions.

As with Sammy the Bull, the Gioia Jr. case is curious not because of the criminal activity involved – both men are hardened criminals, after all – but for the apparent lack of response or retribution from their former mob associates. Gravano was dealing massive amounts of ecstasy in Scottsdale. Gioia Jr. was running high-profile, celebrity-backed restaurants. The notion that either man was invisible from the Mob during their years as free men in Arizona is laughably slim.

Which invites the notion: Is witness protection even necessary in today’s organized crime landscape? Color Robertson unconvinced.

“This is probably one of those programs that always needs to be looked at with a skeptical eye,” the private detective says. “From the perspective of a lot of criminal defense attorneys, the program creates huge incentives to lie. And there are always questions, if the people who publicly leave the program, like Sammy the Bull and Frank Capri, can live freely, and are still out there operating as crooks, how much danger are they really in?”