Gerald Shur, Founder of Federal Witness Protection Program, Dies at 86

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Gerald Shur receives the Attorney General’s Mary C. Lawton Lifetime Achievement Award from Attorney General Janet Reno, left, and Assistant Attorney General Jo Ann Harris, right. | Photo courtesy of the Shur family

Gerald Shur, who founded the Federal Witness Protection Program, died at Ann’s Choice Senior Living Community on Aug. 25 due to complications from lung cancer. He was 86.

Born in the Bronx to Rose and Abraham Shur, who was the general manager of the United Popular Dress Manufacturers Association, Shur’s first brushes with organized crime were personal, according to The New York Times. Listening to his father discuss the influence of the mob in the city’s garment district, he gained an early understanding of the power of organized crime.

Shur graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1955, and earned his law degree two years later. In that time, he met his wife of 68 years, Miriam, who continues to live at Ann’s Choice. Though their backgrounds differed greatly — he was from the Bronx, she was from Corpus Christi, Texas — they knew almost immediately after meeting that they’d be married.


Despite potentially upsetting her parents, who thought her far too young to get married, Miriam Heifetz became Miriam Shur anyway, the secret union overseen by a judge who was a friend of a friend.

“So we got married the first time in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost,” Miriam Shur said. They were later married in a Jewish ceremony, their parents fully aware of the proceedings that time.

Shur joined the federal Department of Justice in 1961, energized by then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s intentions to devote more agency resources to countering organized crime. Shur was one of the first few dozen attorneys hired for the DOJ’s Organized Crime and Racketeering Section.

Initially, Shur oversaw all organized crime investigations by the FBI and other agencies in New York City. An experience with Joseph Valachi, the first member of the Italian-American mafia to become a government informant — and the first to even acknowledge its existence publicly — was important to Shur’s understanding of criminal witnesses behavior.

Soon afterward, he was appointed attorney-in-charge of the Intelligence and Special Services Unit of the Organized Crime Section. Besides developing the DOJ’s first computerized system of organized crime intelligence, Shur was also the first to hire women for criminal intelligence analysis, a rarity at the time.

“He kind of made it his mission to hire women to do that job,” said his son, Ron Shur.

In that position, Shur founded the Federal Witness Protection Program, sometimes referred to as WITSEC (for Witness Security). The program, Shur once said, according to the Times, was intended for those cases, “where if the guy testified on Monday morning and didn’t get protection he would be dead Monday afternoon.”

Pete Earley, who co-wrote a book with Shur in 2002 called “WITSEC: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program,” wrote in a tribute to Shur that 6,416 witnesses and 14,468 of their dependents — “including wives, children and mistresses” — were given new identities and relocated during Shur’s 34-year tenure.

Shur retired in 1995, having spent a career interacting with the likes of Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, who was accepted into the program for testimony against John Gotti, and Henry Hill of “Goodfellas” fame.

In retirement, the Shur family moved from their home in Bowie, Maryland, where they had helped start a Reform synagogue, the Annapolis, Maryland area, where they lived on a 42-foot boat for a time.

About 14 years ago, Gerald and Miriam Shur moved into Ann’s Choice in Warminster to be closer to their son. At Ann’s Choice, Shur played the drums in a band called Second Time Around; Miriam Shur said that people would come to hear his between-song ad-libs as much as the songs themselves.

Ron Shur recalled intersections between his father’s personal and professional lives. There were summer vacations that included time for Shur to meet with candidates from WITSEC and, though the specifics were opaque, the nature of Gerald Shur’s work was well-known to his family.

Miriam Shur said that from the time she met him to the end of his life, his interests and his unfailing kindness remained the same.

“Everything that he always was, he continued to be,” she said. “Never any change at all.”

Shur is survived by Miriam (Heifetz) Shur; his daughter, Ilene Meckley Clark, and her husband, Bob; his son, Ronald Shur, and his wife, Leslie; six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

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