As a lieutenant with the Jamaican Black Mafia -- one of the most lucrative and brazenly violent heroin gangs ever to operate in Baltimore -- James Antonio Williams knew the risks when he decided to testify against gang members at their trial last fall.
After all, his former colleagues had killed a man whom they
merely suspected of being an undercover police officer, and they once fire-bombed a police car parked in front of a building where a drug raid was going down.
If the JBM could not be intimidated by law enforcers, its members certainly would not hesitate to strike out against 17-year-old Tony Williams.
Tony knew that, and so did the FBI -- the agency spent $13,000 to protect him and invested hundreds of hours reassuring the teen-ager and his family.
When a death threat was made against Tony days before he testified, the FBI moved him to a safer place within 30 minutes. In the end, what the teen-ager told the court was key to convicting the gang leaders, all of whom received lengthy prison terms.
His story typifies the intimidation that witnesses in violent crime cases often face and the lengths that investigators will go to assure they testify. Reports from prosecutors and police nationwide show a significant increase in such threats, said Kerry Murphy Healey, who is working on a Justice Department-commissioned study of the problem.
"Traditionally, witness intimidation had been associated with large, organized crime prosecutions, whereas now we're seeing pervasive intimidation in whole communities where prosecutors feel there are large pools of unreported crimes occurring," said Ms. Healey, a consultant with Abt Associates, a social policy research firm in Cambridge, Mass.
Ms. Healey, whose study will not be complete until late next year, said the problem is difficult to quantify. But some cities she has studied report that victim and witness intimidation is a factor in as much as 75 percent to 100 percent of all violent crime -- specifically gang-related, drug-related crimes.
In Baltimore, such threats have become more frequent as police and prosecutors turn up the heat on violent criminals.
"We certainly are seeing more instances of explicit threats," said Gary P. Jordan, first assistant U.S. attorney. "It breeds on itself."
Ms. Healey said the impact of such threats is serious.
"The effect of victim and witness intimidation is to take away the basic tools that prosecutors and police need to go forward with cases," she said.
"It undermines the whole community's sense of whether law enforcement and the government in general can protect them.
It's an essential problem."
Consider three of the cases being heard last week at the Garmatz Federal Courthouse in Baltimore:
* In one courtroom, a young man was on trial for his alleged involvement with the "Strong as Steel" drug gang, whose members sometimes dressed like police officers to get into the homes of people they believed had crossed them, and then brutally assaulted them. Some witnesses in the case were moved for their protection.
* Two floors down, jurors heard about a group of men who held scores of illegal Chinese immigrants for ransom in the basement of a Prince George's County home. Many of the witnesses, and some of their families, were threatened, according to prosecutors.
* In the case against the drug gang involved in the East Baltimore shootout last year that left 10-year-old Tauris Johnson dead, a witness to the shooting was murdered. She had told a federal grand jury a month before that she thought she might be killed.
With growing frequency, justice depends on the words of people who may be risking their lives by stepping forward to tell the truth in a courtroom.
Some are criminals who agree to work with prosecutors for a lighter sentence. Others are regular citizens, who become unwilling observers as violent crime takes over their neighborhoods.
"They see the reckless disregard for human life, and they have to assess the situation," said Bruce Ash, who heads an FBI violent crime task force.
A potential witness can't help but wonder: What will happen if I testify? What will happen if the suspects don't get lengthy prison terms? Will they come back and harm me? It's happened to other people who have betrayed the defendants, will it happen ** to me, too?
The Maryland/Delaware division of the FBI, based in Baltimore, is among the first in the country to respond aggressively to the need for better witness protection, Mr. Ash said. Successfully squiring a witness through a trial requires diligence and compassion.
In the Jamaican Black Mafia case, it fell to Special Agent Richard B. Hoskins to gain Tony Williams' trust, to quell his fears and to ensure his safety. He accompanied Tony to a safe location out of state where acquaintances agreed to supervise him.
Agent Hoskins returned to Baltimore but remained on 24-hour call for Tony. The two talked several times a week, often late at night.
Mr. Hoskins spent an equal amount of time reassuring Tony's family as the trial neared.
The thin, soft-spoken youth worried about walking into court -- what it would be like, who would be there. He would be confronting several gang members, two of them murderers. One of the killers was a man who had once been like a father to Tony.
"He needed constant reassurance," said Agent Hoskins, who spent well over 500 hours in such conversations with Tony and his relatives.
Tony would hear rumors about the case and contact the investigator. A suspicious-looking vehicle spotted by Tony might trigger a late-night phone call. And Agent Hoskins made periodic trips to visit him.
"He had left a life he knew behind, and he was bored and disoriented," said Agent Hoskins. He worried that Tony might abruptly return to Baltimore, where he could become an easy target.
"He much preferred taking a risk to living in an area unfamiliar to him," the agent said.
Such hand-holding, though critical to obtain convictions, can be costly.
Last year, Baltimore earmarked $500,000 for a witness security program. It pays for police overtime, escorting witnesses to and from court and guards at homes of witnesses before or during trials as well as the living expenses for witnesses.
Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms says his efforts to get similar programs in place statewide have been unsuccessful.
"For some reason there's been reluctance by legislators to step in that direction; I've never heard why," he said.
In the JBM case, the investment paid off.
"The bottom line is, Tony actually testified," Agent Hoskins said. "We had some people who were 6-foot-4, 250 pounds crumble on us."
Tony told the court how he'd earned $2,000 a week running a heroin operation in the stairwells of a public housing high-rise. He described where the gang stashed guns and money as it pulled in $40,000 a day. And he linked gang leader Adewale Aladekoba to the gun used in the murder of a heroin addict whom Aladekoba believed to be an undercover police officer.
His was damaging testimony.
Aladekoba was convicted and received two life sentences.