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Witness Protection Is Unevenly Spread

Special to The Times

After Olutokumbo Oluwole was shot to death in a parking lot of a fast-food restaurant on his 22nd birthday, a program distributed at his funeral said his innocence had been his downfall.

Oluwole, the program said, did not believe he had any enemies. Not when he saw his best friend, Laron Mercado, fatally shot in March. Not when he told police what he had seen. Not even when he fled his hometown of Oakland while investigators prepared their case.

But Oluwole became this city’s 50th homicide victim of 2003 and the second witness killed in the Mercado case.

Despite a California Department of Justice program that reimbursed district attorneys $7.4 million for the costs of witness protection between 1998 and the end of 2002, Oluwole was never offered entry into the program. Oluwole’s father said his son had paid his own way in leaving town before being killed.

State Department of Justice records show that Alameda County has received substantially less money from the state’s Witness Protection Program than counties with similar, and sometimes smaller, numbers of murders.

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With 114 homicides in 2003, Oakland had the most killings in Alameda County. From 1998 through 2002, the county was the site of more than 5% of California’s homicides. But during that five-year period, Alameda County received only 1.2% -- or $87,785 -- of the $7.4 million distributed through the Witness Protection Program. In comparison, San Francisco had less than 3% of the state’s homicides during the same five years and received 21.3% -- or about $1.6 million -- of the program funds.

Harold Boscovich, director of the Alameda County district attorney’s Victim-Witness Assistance Division, said that average witness protection payouts in the county are $2,000 to $3,000 per witness.

He said the county often does not take advantage of the program because many witnesses dismiss the danger they face or are reluctant to leave Oakland. When witnesses decide to enter the program, Boscovich said, he tries to give them enough money to move but limits the amount so defense attorneys can’t argue that he is buying testimony.

“My role is to keep the person safe and help them live comfortably but not make any money off the program,” Boscovich said. “If I put you in witness protection, you’re only going to be as safe as you want to be. You’re not going to get a face change. You’re not going to get plastic surgery. That’s in the movies.... It’s nothing exciting. It’s just business. They’re nobodies. It’s not Sam Giancana.... It’s Sam Jones.”

The state’s program -- which is similar to the more publicized U.S. Department of Justice Witness Security Program -- covers armed protection and transportation, relocation, housing expenses, new identity documents and basic living expenses for witnesses and their families.

Terese Drabec, the deputy district attorney who originally handled the Mercado case, acknowledged that the county does not participate in the program very often.

She said witness protection money probably would not have saved Oluwole, who she said had left town on his own and knew the danger he faced. “Hindsight is 20-20,” Drabec said. “Who would have thought this would happen?”

The city of Oakland is defending itself against a $3.5-million lawsuit filed last year claiming that it failed to provide appropriate protection to one of two witnesses who were killed in a previous murder case.

Dave LeBahn, executive director of the California District Attorneys Assn., said that although almost every gang case involves threats made against witnesses, physical violence is less common and murder is even more unusual. “I would hope in the state, it wouldn’t be more than one or two in any given calendar year,” he said.

Before he was shot, Oluwole told police that on March 25 he had been hanging out on a West Oakland street corner with Mercado, Kenny James and Chandale Shannon when a van containing three men and a woman stopped nearby. Oluwole said that Donal Hendrix, 33, and Maurice “Mo” Skinner, 28, two Oakland ex-convicts, had gotten out of the van. Hendrix was carrying a semiautomatic pistol and Skinner had a rifle; they started arguing with Mercado and James and then opened fire, Oluwole said.

The shooting left Mercado in a coma and James paralyzed. Soon after the incident, Oakland police arrested Hendrix and Skinner. Damone Carr, 40, the third man who was reported to have been in the vehicle, disappeared. While Hendrix and Skinner were in jail, Mercado died of his injuries and Tonia Penn, the woman who had reportedly been in the van when the incident started, was shot to death after telling police what she had seen that night.

After talking to investigators, Oluwole went to hide out with a friend in Sacramento. Drabec said that while Oluwole was there, he got a message saying Hendrix and Skinner would be sentenced June 13 for Mercado’s shooting. It must have sounded like an official call, because he showed up in an Oakland court that day.

“Someone may have used a ruse to get him back here. A relative of one of the defendants had mean-mugged him in court” on June 13, Drabec said, using the street slang term for giving someone the evil eye.

The day after Oluwole was tricked into going to court, someone shot him in the parking lot of a KFC restaurant.

“He would have been a great witness,” Drabec said. “Our immediate reaction was that we’ve got to preserve Chandale’s testimony. We can’t let these guys get away with this.”

Four days after Oluwole was killed, Drabec received permission to perform special pre-trial questioning of Shannon before a judge, defense attorney and defendants. These conditional examinations are allowed in California when there is evidence that the life of a witness is in jeopardy. They result in a written record that can serve as testimony if a witness becomes unavailable or uncooperative during a trial.

“To me, the real story is how brave Chandale Shannon has been,” Drabec said of Shannon’s decision to tell the court what he had seen. “He came in custody to the same court that the defendants were in. He looked them right in the eye and testified.”

The record of this testimony could be the key to proving the prosecution’s case if a trial follows an upcoming preliminary hearing. Shannon is out of jail and in the Witness Protection Program.

No one has been arrested in the deaths of Penn or Oluwole.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Witness protection program

California’s witness protection program is used by prosecutors to relocate and protect witnesses and their families who face danger if they remain in a city before or after testifying in criminal cases. State statistics for the five-year period 1998 through 2002 show large disparities between the percentage of witness program reimbursements paid by the state to some counties and the incidence of homicides in those counties.

*--* Reimbursements Homicides Percent of Percent of County Paid to county state total Cases state total Alameda $87,785 1.19 554 5.11 Contra Costa $432,990 5.88 264 2.43 Fresno $360,664 4.90 261 2.41 Los Angeles $1,971,284 26.75 5,082 46.87 Orange $286,741 3.89 373 3.44 Riverside $274,784 3.73 476 4.39 Sacramento $175,335 2.38 391 3.61 San Bernadino $148,693 2.02 668 6.16 San Diego $250,646 3.40 469 4.33 San Francisco $1,568,565 21.29 311 2.87 San Joaquin $91,150 1.24 229 2.11

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Source: California Dept. of Justice


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