Thursday, 17 September 2009

A life built of lies - for telling the truth

You can never see your family again, or visit your home town. You live in constant fear of an attack, and you have only one or two people to help you. You have to build a new life, make new friends, but you can’t tell them anything about yourself, your background, why you are living there. You're not allowed to put family photos on display. You might have to be moved at short notice and start building up a new life all over again. Your life is made up of lie after lie, about the smallest things.

It’s hard to think of a crime that would fit such a punishment, but for a small number of people in the UK every year this is the reality of witness protection. When a witness to a crime is deemed to be in danger which could lead to their death, they can be offered police protection including a new identity. The criminals they are testifying against might get 20 years in prison. Witness protection, on the other hand, is often a life sentence.

I’ve known about witness protection for a long time because I used to be a news editor, and I remembered stories like this, but the idea for When I Was Joe came from a news report about the Dixon family, a six-year-old boy and his parents who had to be taken into the scheme because they were the victims of a £53m robbery on a security firm’s depot. The boy was taken hostage, and acted with extreme courage, wriggling between the bars of a cage to free the other prisoners. His reward was the loss of everything he knew.
His mother gave evidence at the trial – a trial in which defence barristers accused her and her husband of being involved with the crime. She said: "We have had to leave our home we have lived in for 20 years."
"We have been relocated a number of times. We have been estranged from our family and friends.
"The consequences of what these people did have changed our lives completely." The family were considering emigrating to Australia, but even then would only be able to visit Britain in disguise.

Danielle Cable was 17 years old when her boyfriend Stephen Cameron (pictured here together) became the victim of a ‘road rage’ stabbing by a gangster, Kenneth Noye. When Danielle was taken into witness protection she had half an hour to pack her bags, and no chance to say goodbye to family and friends.
Danielle’s case was high profile, and a film was made about her ordeal which included being taken to Spain to identify Noye so he could be extradited. However she has never been able to come out of hiding.
In a rare interview she told the Daily Mail that she hadn’t seen two of her brothers since she was relocated, and she didn’t see her mother for four months. Her phone calls were strictly limited and it takes six weeks for letters to reach her. Although she has now married and built a new life, she will always fear becoming the victim of a contract killing.

The good news is that witness intimidation is still rare - it affects only 8 per cent of cases according to a recent government survey. The bad news is that one key protection for witnesses - the right to remain anonymous in court – is under threat, after the House of Lords ruled that a defendant has the right to know who accuses him.

Most people given new identities are criminals who inform on former colleagues. Darren Nicholls was quoted recently in a fascinating piece in the  Telegraph, which examines the paradox that increasingly the expertise built up to protect witnesses is being used for criminals. The more notorious the crime, the more the state ends up paying to protect the criminal.
''Learning to adapt to having a new name is a nightmare,'' says Nicholls, who has had his new identity for ten years. ''Sometimes when work mates call out my name I just don't respond, even to this day. I am constantly on my guard, wondering if I will say something that will give me away, if I will trip myself up. You have to remember every little word of your 'legend'. One slip and it would be all-too-easy to out yourself.

''The hardest part for me is my kids. They were five and six when I had to disappear, which means they were old enough to remember their old life. They constantly nagged that they wanted to go back to our old town, and wanted to keep in touch with their friends. Explaining why they couldn't was really difficult. I don't think they will ever understand the very real danger I could be in but that's not something I want to dwell on.”

In When I Was Joe, 14-year-old Ty witnesses a crime, does the right thing by telling the police and has to be given a new identity - Joe. He and his mum have to pack their bags and leave, first to a hotel, then to a safe house. It struck me that a teenager being given a new identity might quite like the chance to start again – but there are dangers in changing too much about yourself when you’re going through the massive upheaval of adolescence anyway. For Ty’s mother it feels like she’s lost everything she’s built up – and that’s an enormous blow for someone who’s worked so hard for every little thing in her life.

The events in the book are dramatic and may seem almost unbelievable. I've just had an Amazon Vine reviewer query the  details and I'm confident that everything is grounded in fact. Witness protection is a murky area though, it's patchy, varies from case to case and police force to police force and  the people who go through it are generally unable to speak out and draw attention to themselves. An MP who campaigns on their behalf - Simon Hughes  -  ended up with a contract on his life, and police protection after bravely intervening to gain justice when a young man Jamie Robe was killed in his constituency.

I wonder how many children in the UK are living under witness protection. Your new neighbours, the new boy in your class - it could be them.

Or it could be you or your sister or a friend. Recently I was telling a friend about my book. 'That's strange,' she said, 'There was a murder in our street last week. The police were round, they wanted to take a statement from my husband. But we knew the people..they knew us. The police said they'd protect us -  but my husband wouldn't do it. And then, wouldn't you know it, it turned out they had the whole thing on CCTV.'

Update: As a result of this post I discovered that my sister had a colleague who was taken into witness protection because her son had witnessed a crime (Don't ask me why she hadn't mentioned it before!) One day the colleague was there, the next she was gone - she just had time to call and explain to her boss that she was being relocated. And  the people she worked with never heard from her again.


  1. This is excellent background material for readers of your novel. I have found it really useful to read about your research and hope that I never find myself in this position. I loved the novel and look forward to reading the sequel.

  2. Really interesting background about your inspiration for Joe. Thanks!

  3. Wow! Those were some intriguing stories. I hope that I or no one I know are ever forced to go into the witness protection program.

    Thanks for the info.

  4. This is a REALLY interesting piece. Love it. And I'm going to pre-order your book right now...great premise for a novel.

  5. I do not believe Danielle got much help at all. As far as I am aware she was basically dumped in a bedsit without money or a job - what thanks was that for putting her life at risk. As for the criminals that go on the scheme - they can take their chances. Baby P killers certainly do not deserve to take tax payers money to create a new identity when they get out - although I am amazed that they are thinking about getting out at all!!!!!

    1. I hope they are somewhere nice, enjoying life. But the chances I slim. They are proberley looking over there shoulders all the time