Washington - Brooklyn-based rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine took the witness stand this month and offered a rare look inside the inner workings of the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods, a notoriously dangerous and murderous street gang he once belonged to.
But after testifying as federal prosecutors' star witness against two former associates, Aljermiah Mack and Anthony Ellison, the 23-year-old faces a future that looks bleak, uncertain and unsafe.
Tekashi 6ix9ine, whose real name is Daniel Hernandez, faced a minimum of 47 years in prison on a slew of charges to which he pleaded guilty in January, including racketeering. As part of a cooperation agreement, prosecutors promised to request a reduced sentence. Given the extent of his assistance, it's possible he could be released as early as 2020, according to his attorney, Lance Lazzaro.
The U.S. attorney's office prosecuting him has also indicated that Hernandez could enter the witness protection program after serving his sentence. Whether the Brooklyn-based rapper plans to accept the offer is unclear. But it raises questions about how a viral celebrity successfully vanishes from view - and whether he would even want to.
Since its inception in 1971, the Witness Security Program has served more than 8,600 witnesses, according to the U.S. Marshals Service, which administers the program; as of 2019, the program has assisted 18,900 people, counting witnesses and family members.
The federal Witness Security Program was created by the Organized Crime Act of 1970 and was designed to protect people before, during and after trial who were in danger because they provided testimony against high-ranking mafia members.
People inside a criminal enterprise were often able to intimidate others who might have cooperated with authorities into silence. By entering the program, witnesses and their families were assured new identities and full documentation, housing, living and medical expenses, and assistance finding a job.
The witness program has since been expanded to include people who testify in drug-trafficking cases, federal and state felony cases that could result in retaliation against the witness, and some civil and administrative proceedings.
In its early years, the program was riddled with problems, ranging from soft security to unfulfilled promises.
When Ron Schoenneman joined the program in 1972, he agreed to cooperate with the federal government against his former business partner, who he suspected was double-crossing him. The duo's operation involved $9 million in profit from stolen tractor-trailers, The Washington Post reported.
Schoenneman, his wife and six children were dropped off at motel in the Midwest with new names. They were not given identification, money or employment. The government also refused to pay for Schoenneman's daughter's medical condition, and despite his cooperation, Schoenneman was sentenced to five years in prison in 1975.
Howard Safir, who led the protection effort in the late 1970s and early 1980s as assistant director of operations for the Marshals Service, called it a "problem program," according to The Washington Post. He said it was in part because over 90 percent of its participants were hardened criminals who were trying to escape either retribution or lengthy prison terms.
Over time, the program began operating more smoothly. A 1989 Marshals Service report called it "the government's most effective way to obtain testimony against accused drug dealers, major organized crime members and terrorists."
In recent years, the Marshals Service has relocated many participants, including high-profile witnesses. According to the agency, not a single person has been hurt or killed while under its protection.
With changed haircuts, clothes and names, the witnesses who had been under threat have adopted unassuming identities and blended into their new neighborhoods without issue.
The caveat, though, is that they wanted the government's help disappearing, and Hernandez might not. He's even signaled a desire to reactivate his hip-hop career - something that would prove difficult with a new identity through the witness protection program.
Lazzaro, his lawyer, declined to comment on Hernandez's decision until his sentencing, which is scheduled for December.