'There’s no plastic surgery': Reality of witness protection 'a lot more basic than Hollywood'

Going State witness is not like Hollywood, nor is it backed up by law, writes Security Correspondent Cormac O'Keeffe.
'There’s no plastic surgery': Reality of witness protection 'a lot more basic than Hollywood'

Former Sinn Féin councillor Jonathan Dowdall is turning State witness against Gerry ‘The Monk’ Hutch and others. File picture.

Hollywood movies and Netflix series are the reference point for many people when they hear the words “witness protection”.

Images of criminals-turned-witnesses and their families wrapped in an all-protective, top-secret system, and whisked away to a new life in a detached bungalow in the leafy suburbs may come to mind.

Film buffs will recall the classic gangster film Goodfellas, where Ray Liotta plays real-life mafia figure Henry Hill, who, along with his family, enters the Witness Protection Programme and gives evidence against former associates in the Lucchese crime family.

“The reality is a lot more basic than Hollywood," one security source said. 

There’s no plastic surgery, no fat cheques, no driving fancy cars or living in a mansion. You get an allowance, for a period, but you are supposed to get a job."

When the Special Criminal Court was told last Monday that Jonathan Dowdall, who had faced charges for the murder of David Byrne at the Regency Hotel in February 2016, was turning State witness against Gerry ‘The Monk’ Hutch and others, it sent shockwaves through criminal and legal worlds.

Gerry 'The Monk' Hutch. Picture: Courtpix
Gerry 'The Monk' Hutch. Picture: Courtpix

Dowdall was no longer charged with murder and had pleaded guilty, along with his father, to a lesser charge of contributing to a criminal organisation in committing a serious crime, in this case murder, by booking a room at the Regency Hotel.

The revelation that Dowdall, 44, was being assessed for the Witness Security Programme (WSP), as it is formally called, has thrown the spotlight on the highly-secretive, and somewhat controversial, programme.

But for Dowdall and his direct family — he has a wife and four children — their lives have already changed.

They have been under protective custody, and living at a secure location, after he asked about the WSP and gave statements against others late last year.

When the trial is over, there are two main possibilities: he, and his father, are given fully suspended sentences and they, and family, are immediately taken abroad; or, as most expect, he gets a prison term, which he will serve in a secure unit in a relatively safe prison (possibly, going on previous cases, Arbour Hill).

On completion of his sentence, after remission and probably before that, he will be freed and transported by gardaí to a secure location and fairly quickly he and his family shipped abroad.

It is not clear if his family could be sent abroad after the trial and before any sentence is completed.

Whatever scenario, it will be traumatic for the family.

In an interview with the Sunday Tribune in October 2010, Steve Collins — whose innocent son, Roy, was shot dead by the Dundon-McCarthy gang in 2009 — said he and his family turned down the WSP.

Steve Collins, father of innocent Limerick businessman Roy Collins, leaves the Court of Appeal in Dublin on April 9, 2009. Picture: Collins Courts.
Steve Collins, father of innocent Limerick businessman Roy Collins, leaves the Court of Appeal in Dublin on April 9, 2009. Picture: Collins Courts.

He said gardaí told him he would no longer be able to work in the pub trade — as he could be traced — and, at 55, would have to retrain, which gardaí would help pay for.

“You also only get a certain amount of financial support in the programme," he said. 

After six months or so, you have to be supporting yourself independently."

He believed it was suitable only for criminals, particularly those on the dole.

A number of security sources told the Irish Examiner that there is financial help to witnesses to get up and running, but no more income than their legitimate income provided, with money for training or education and the like.

“The cost is relocating you to another country, with a new identity and place to live — it’s not a reward for testifying,” the first source said.

"We bring you over, get you settled there. 

You are not going to have two guards, stationed in Australia, looking after you, or local police doing so.” 

A second source said: “You need the family to settle — you don’t want them to go to a country where don’t know the language and hate the culture, or if they are not for learning or somewhere they can’t get a job."

A third source said: “It’s not only English-speaking countries they can go to, it's wider than that.

But they have to be able to settle in the country. You are not going to throw someone into Botswana.

"And they will have a link back to the gardaí.” 

Safety is key — and will be particularly so in Dowdall’s case, given the severe threat level against him.

“They have to be able to settle there, there with their kids, because if not, it’s going to cause you more problems down the road.” 

The source said Dowdall leaving his family at home “would be a nightmare” and added: “The direct family would need to go, it could be extended to other people, but someone may say: ‘I’m not doing that’, and stay.” 

All the information must be shared with the host country’s police. “There can’t be any surprises,” said one source.

All agree that witnesses have a life of anxiety ahead of them.

“It’s not pretty, you have to leave everything behind you," said one source. "You can never really take your eye off the ball."

Another source said: “The person has a duty of care to protect themselves as well.

If they have common sense, they’ll keep their heads down — others won’t have that ability.” 

Sources are aware of families that have kept their heads down and continue to live under the programme.

Gardaí give security advice, but cannot restrict the activities of the witness or stop people from coming home.

Some have not managed life under the confines of the programme, or claimed that the State did not live up to its end of the bargain.

David Mooney was one. Mr Mooney, who was not a criminal, entered the programme after giving evidence against two men claiming to be dissidents trying to extort his business.

In 2016, he brought a High Court action claiming his security had been compromised and the State had reneged on a promise to offer him €600,000, but his case was thrown out.

The court noted he was “very outgoing” for someone on the programme. He had also passed himself off as a garda and had gone to the media about his situation.

The State did accept it had an ongoing obligation to protect him, but denied his claims.

Joey O’Callaghan was another. He was only 18 when he entered the programme after giving evidence against two Ballyfermot killers. 

State witness Joey O'Callaghan.
State witness Joey O'Callaghan.

He was relocated abroad, believed to be England, but relapsed into drug addiction and serious mental illness.

He eventually returned home and signed out of the programme, penning a book, The Witness, with Sunday World crime journalist Nicola Tallant.

Their cases were raised in the Dáil by then Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Niall Collins in May 2015.

Frances Fitzgerald, who was justice minister at the time, said admission to the WSP was considered by a “high-level group” of senior gardaí and DPP officials.

The initial experience of the WSP was tumultuous, with three members of the infamous Gilligan gang — most prominently Charles Bowden — the first participants in the programme.

Charles Bowden (with his head covered) is led from court in 1997. Picture: Collins Dublin
Charles Bowden (with his head covered) is led from court in 1997. Picture: Collins Dublin

Bowden’s testimony played a part in the convictions of Paul Ward and Brian Meehan for the murder of Veronica Guerin in 1996.

In 2002, Ward’s conviction was quashed on appeal, with the court issuing damning criticism about Bowden’s evidence and his credibility as a witness.

He was a “vicious criminal” and an “inveterate liar” the Court of Appeal stated.

Meehan’s conviction stood, as did Gilligan’s for drug trafficking, both based on Bowden's evidence. 

In 2005, in the Supreme Court, Mrs Justice Susan Denham said the evidence of the three State witnesses at the Gilligan trial in the SCC had been properly treated.

'By the book'

Sources said both the Gardaí and the DPP learned a lot from the Gilligan trials.

“That was the first time, so everyone did learn,” said one source. “This time around, everything has to be done by the book.” 

But one issue here is that there is no “book” as such, as least one available to the public or to scrutiny. There may be policy, but there is no legislation.

In 2015, speaking against a Labour Party private member’s bill, the Government said the commissioner felt it was unnecessary and that it could introduce some “inflexibility” and actual “hinder” its operation.

In her ruling, Ms Justice Denham there was “no reason” why the State could not introduce legislation and said the activities of gardaí in relation to the programme were relevant and must be scrutinised carefully.

Aaron Harte-Hughes, a teacher in law and criminology at the Department of Law at Maynooth University, said: “There is no legislation governing this programme, and that is contrary to European recommendations on the provision of adequate legal framework [for witness protection programmes].” 

The DPP needs effectively to show this is not an exchange, rather it's because of the circumstances of the case, that this ‘collaborator of justice’ [as they are called] needs protection, including relocation and provision of supports.” 

One source said that while there is no legislation, there are precedents in prosecutions and court rulings.

Several sources said the gardaí and the DPP are satisfied with Dowdall’s bona fides, that he has material evidence to give, which gardaí have checked out, that he is a target, and that he is likely to be a credible witness — all of which will be subject to intense cross-examination.

“There’s a way to go yet,” said one source, “but it's going to be fascinating how it plays out — for the witness, for gardaí, the Hutch gang, and even Daniel Kinahan.”

More in this section


Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox

Execution Time: 0.228 s