How the first man in witness protection was hunted down in SF

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Joseph Barboza, a tough-talking former Mafia enforcer, testifying before the House crime committee in 1972.

Joseph Barboza, a tough-talking former Mafia enforcer, testifying before the House crime committee in 1972.

Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

Three days before Valentine’s Day, 1976, seemed like any other on the corner of 25th and Moraga. Along that stretch of San Francisco’s Outer Sunset, lined with squat pastel rowhouses, a man named Joseph Donati walked to his car. As he pulled out his keys, a white van squealed around the corner. Witnesses saw a man lean out the passenger-side window as shotgun blasts echoed on the quiet street. In a flash, the van was gone and Donati was bleeding out on the sidewalk. 

When police arrived, however, they learned in short order that Joseph Donati didn’t exist. The dead man before them was one of America’s most famous hitmen — and the first stool pigeon to die in the Witness Protection Program. 

Few men have ever wanted to be in the Mafia as much as Joseph Barboza. He was born in New Bedford, Mass., in 1932, to working-class Portuguese American parents. His father was a part-time boxer and a full-time degenerate. Violence was the norm in the Barboza house; unsurprisingly, young Joe was soon getting in fistfights and running wild through the neighborhood. He was barely a teenager when he was first arrested and, as a result, he was shipped off to the Lyman School for Boys, a notorious “reform” school that did little by way of reform. More often than not, boys left more scarred than when they arrived. 

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By the time he was 20, Barboza had racked up a rap sheet as long as his arm. He was also gaining a sinister reputation for his almost feral brutality. The legend went that he got his nickname, “Animal,” after biting a chunk of a man’s face off during a fight. Barboza was a beast in the ring too, following in his father’s footsteps as a boxer. 

But Barboza’s career goal was more lurid: He wanted to be a Mafia hitman. While in prison, he’d researched La Cosa Nostra and learned only people of Sicilian — or, at the bare minimum, Italian — descent could be made men. So he picked up a Sicilian girlfriend, hoping this would get him an in. As for the other requirement to be a hitman, well, Barboza had no hang-ups about killing. 

After he was paroled in 1958, Barboza became a prolific Boston street thug with his own crew of thieves and petty crooks. This caught the attention of Raymond Patriarca, head of the New England Patriarca crime family. Patriarca was looking for a killer, and Barboza fit the bill. “I was an enforcer who kept the other enforcers in line,” Barboza would later boast in testimony.

As a hitman for Patriarca, Barboza claimed he killed over two dozen people. It was a deadly time on the streets of Boston — several gangs were at war with each other. Barboza helped clean up loose ends, committed revenge killings and maintained order in the Patriarca ranks, who operated under fear of death.

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In 1966, the law caught up with him again and he was imprisoned on gun charges. Barboza sat back, expecting Patriarca to bail out his best muscle, but the call for freedom never came. Sensing an opportunity, two FBI agents visited him in jail, setting in motion what a House committee would later call “one of the greatest failures in the history of federal law enforcement.”

The agents told Barboza that Patriarca had decided he was expendable. Barboza was furious at this betrayal and worried for his safety; an expendable hitman probably doesn’t have much time left on this earth. He agreed to cooperate with the feds.

Barboza was an incredible get for the FBI, and they believed they had to keep him alive at all costs. He was assigned a deputy US Marshal named John Partington, whose sole job was to keep Barboza, his wife and children alive. “WITSEC: Inside the Federal Witness Protection Program,” co-written by the founder of the program, detailed some of the straight-from-the-movies ways that Partington hid Barboza during the government’s conspiracy-to-murder trial against Patriarca. 

Joseph Barboza, a former Mafia enforcer, testifying before the House crime committee in 1972.

Joseph Barboza, a former Mafia enforcer, testifying before the House crime committee in 1972.

Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

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For 13 months, 300 deputies took turns in groups protecting Barboza. On the day he was set to testify, Patriarca’s assassins were stationed around the courthouse, waiting. But Barboza never showed — until he was suddenly on the stand, seemingly appearing out of thin air. Partington, anticipating the danger, had sequestered Barboza in the courthouse basement three days prior. The men had been sleeping there on cots ever since. 

Once, Partington hid Barboza in a Postal Service truck delivering mail to the courthouse. Another time, he landed him on a nearby roof via helicopter. They even hid in plain sight, wrapping up with mufflers and hats and arriving in a bright red sports car. 

But the most daring moment came when a Boston newspaper revealed Barboza and his family were holed up on Thacher Island, a small island with two lighthouses off the coast of Cape Cod. The cavalry came: Boats with gunmen were sent to Thacher Island, and they were met by marshals at the shore. They eventually turned around, and Partington had to evacuate the Barboza family to safety by helicopter.

It was clear that Barboza’s hunters would never stop. Although the history of government informants is predictably foggy, Barboza is widely called the first person in American history to go into witness protection. Despite the danger, Barboza loved the fame that came with being a mob celebrity, and he was eager to keep testifying at Mafia trials. Obsessed with demolishing organized crime, the government felt keeping Barboza alive was in their best interest — a decision that would come back the haunt the FBI. 

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In 1969, Barboza’s handlers moved him to sleepy Santa Rosa, California. There, the newly named Joseph Bentley began life afresh. The first step was a new job. “Agents sat down with Joe and thumbed through the yellow pages of the local phone directory looking for a business that might trigger his interest,” Barboza biographer Casey Sherman wrote in “Animal: The Bloody Rise and Fall of the Mob’s Most Feared Assassin.” He decided being a cook might suit him, and the feds enrolled him in culinary school. When he finished, he was given a job on a merchant ship to China. The structure of ship life, as you might guess, did not go well. It was his first and last voyage at sea. 

Back in Santa Rosa, Barboza fell into his old ways. He began patronizing a bar called the Mirror Man Lounge. There, he met 26-year-old Clayton Rickey Wilson. There are differing accounts as to why Wilson and Barboza became partners in crime, but according to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, the pair ended up stealing $100,000 together. Wilson’s widow Dee Wilson would later testify that the men had “clandestine meetings” and kept a small stockpile of “dynamite, [a] machine gun, small weapons, a bulletproof vest and a mysterious tin box containing more than $100,000 in stocks and bonds.”

On the night of July 5, 1970, Barboza, the Wilsons and a 19-year-old friend of the couple, Paulette Ramos, met at the Wilson’ Glen Ellen home. “Clay was restless,” Dee Wilson testified, “going from room to room.”

Barboza suggested the foursome go “for a walk,” the sinister undertones of which were apparently lost on the group. He took them down Lakeside Drive, onto Wake Robin Lane and then “onto a rocky road” into the black night. The women hung back a bit, clambering over the rocky terrain, when they heard a gunshot. Eventually, Barboza emerged from the darkness. Clayton Wilson never did. Terrified of Barboza, both women kept their mouths shut for months.  

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In October, though, the 19-year-old Ramos could bear the secret no longer. She took investigators to a shallow grave where Wilson lay decomposing. A massive tree stump, weighing somewhere between 300 and 400 pounds, had been dragged atop the body. It took three men to move it. 

Barboza’s murder arrest was bad news for the FBI, who were peeved to learn their favorite snitch was in police custody. They couldn’t keep Barboza’s identity a secret any longer, and the news soon leaked into the press. More than a little delighted to be back in the limelight, though, Barboza hammed it up at his murder trial. Though he “sat stone-faced in the early stages,” he reportedly moved through “surprise, disbelief, denial and disgust” when Dee Wilson took the stand. When asked to identify the man she knew as Joe, she pointed at him. He grinned and gave a gee-shucks hand wave as if ruefully admitting he’d been busted.

The FBI wanted him back in their hands, and they weren’t afraid of twisting justice to do it. As the trial unfolded, Sonoma County District Attorney Kiernan Hyland was given an astonishing heads-up by Barboza’s lawyer: Two FBI agents were flying to the Bay Area to testify in Barboza’s defense. 

“This is disconcerting for the prosecution because it presents a picture of a house divided against itself,” Hyland wrote in a fiery letter to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. “…When and if F.B.I. agents testify as defense witnesses, it would be appreciated that they do me the courtesy of contacting me first and allowing me to interview them.”

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“We had a pretty good capital murder case,” an assistant DA later told a House committee on government reform. “And we got to the end and were having FBI agents suddenly appear as almost character witnesses.” 

Frustrated, the DA’s office accepted a plea bargain: Barboza would plead guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for just five years in a state prison. After the judge announced his sentence, Barboza turned to a prosecutor and put out his hand. “No hard feelings,” he said cheerfully. 

The convicted murderer also penned a letter to the Press Democrat that was published on the front page. “The DA’s office is a credit to the people of Sonoma County!” Barboza wrote. “Where I have come from and been, it was a pleasure to live in Santa Rosa. It was a comfort to know my family could live in a city where the police officials could not be bought.”

He added, “Tell the Mafia when it comes to making deals don’t come knocking on Joe Baron’s door because he is not home!” 

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While in prison, Barboza decided to take another spin in the media circus. He told his government handlers that he had information about Frank Sinatra’s partnership with the mob at a Massachusetts racetrack. Credulous as usual, the agents put Barboza in front of a congressional crime committee where he admitted it was just a rumor he’d heard. He had no firsthand knowledge. The next day, newspapers across the nation ran the headline: “Sinatra Linked to Mafia.” An outraged Sinatra demanded to speak to Congress himself. 

“I am not a second-class citizen. Let’s make that clear,” the singer raged. “How do you repair the damage that has been done to my reputation by a second-class punk?”

Frank Sinatra leaves the Capitol Building after testifying in front of the House Select Committee on Organized Crime in 1972 in Washington, DC. 

Frank Sinatra leaves the Capitol Building after testifying in front of the House Select Committee on Organized Crime in 1972 in Washington, DC. 

PL Gould/Images Press/Getty Images

“He’s a nutcake,” Patriarca added when asked about Barboza’s claims about Sinatra. “To keep himself outta prison, he’d lie. He’d say anything. He’d even sell his own mother.”

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The cracks were showing in Barboza’s credibility. But the American public didn’t yet know the half of it; for years, the FBI was aware that Barboza was a flat-out liar. In one trial, four innocent men were convicted of a murder that he’d committed himself — and the FBI knew the entire time. They’d been so pleased to take down any part of the mob that they signed a deal with the devil.

In 2000, the Department of Justice opened an investigation into the FBI’s shady dealings during this time; the probe eventually led to the report that called the FBI’s strategy regarding informants one of federal law enforcement’s “greatest failures” with “disastrous consequences.” Families of the four wrongly convicted men sued the FBI for withholding evidence that would have freed them. They were awarded $101.7 million — one of the largest ever judgments of its kind against the US government.

Disgraced and paroled from prison, Barboza moved to San Francisco in October 1975. This time, the feds gave him the identity of Joe Donati and an apartment on La Playa Street. There, the San Francisco Examiner reported, agents were still “keeping a protective eye on him because of his usefulness as a witness in any further trial of Patriarca.” But Barboza’s time was running short. The mob never stopped looking for him, and he’d essentially stopped hiding.

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In the early evening of Feb. 11, 1976, two men in a white van came for Barboza in the Outer Sunset. He was dead before he could even fire a shot back. The Animal, at last, was dead.

“I had a love-hate feeling for the guy,” his former bodyguard Partington said. “He was a killer, but still, we had gotten close.”

Barboza’s onetime lawyer F. Lee Bailey had less kind things to say. It wasn’t hard to reach him; Bailey was already in San Francisco with his new client: Patty Hearst. “With all due respect to my former client,” Bailey told reporters, “I don’t think society has suffered a great loss.”

Patriarca enforcer J.R. Russo was eventually busted for the killing after a compatriot was caught on a wiretap bragging about Russo’s handiwork, and sentenced for multiple crimes. Although justice was technically served, it seemed no one missed Barboza anyway. He is buried alone in South Dartmouth Cemetery in Massachusetts.

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Since WITSEC’s deadly failure with Barboza, it has gained a reputation as one of America’s most reliable programs. In the last 50 years, its website boasts the U.S. Marshals Service has “protected, relocated, and given new identities to more than 19,000 witnesses and their family members.”

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