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How Do You Protect a Witness Like 6ix9ine?

The heavily tattooed Brooklyn rapper could be going into federal protection—that is, if it's even possible for him to disappear.

by Jack Denton
Sep 27 2019, 5:48pm

Photo by Jefferson Siegel/NY Daily News via Getty Images 

With his cotton candy-colored hair and dozens of face and body tattoos resembling scrawls you might find on a middle-schooler's desk, Brooklyn rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine is not someone you'd expect to easily vanish in a crowd. The rapid rise (and fall) of his career was driven as much by viral hits like "GUMMO" and "FEFE" as it was by his can't-look-away offstage antics, which he feverishly broadcast to his 14.3 million Instagram followers.

And yet, prosecutors may try to help him permanently shake all those eyes. In February, 6ix9ine pled guilty to racketeering conspiracy and eight other charges, and faces a minimum prison sentence of 47 years. (He has also admitted to years of domestic violence, and, in 2015, pled guilty to "use of a child in a sexual performance.") Now, prosecutors are reportedly considering offering him witness protection and a significantly reduced sentence for his cooperation in the federal racketeering and firearms trial of two of his former crew members, Anthony Ellison and Aljermiah Mack.

In extensive testimony last week, 6ix9ine (whose real name is Daniel Hernandez) discussed his connections with the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods and a litany of associated "violent crimes, robberies, assaults, drugs, stuff of that nature." Beyond the defendants and himself, 6ix9ine's statements in court implicated the rappers Jim Jones, Trippie Redd, and Cardi B. During his testimony, he detailed how earnings from his music were used to buy guns for Nine Trey and admitted to ordering the shooting of rapper Chief Keef.

Given the number of enemies he has created, witness protection seems an increasingly necessary possibility. Rumors are now circulating that he may reject protection and continue his music career after he's served out his sentence, opting instead for round-the-clock security. If true, that might be the only option he has: It would probably be very difficult for someone like 6ix9ine to disappear completely.

Since it was created by the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, the United States Federal Witness Protection Program has had mixed results in terms of disappearing its cooperating witnesses—even ones with less of a public image and fewer identifying characteristics than 6ix9ine. The legislation was originally intended to give the federal government new and powerful tools to prosecute high-level members of the Mafia, among other organizations—including empowering the Department of Justice to develop a program that would encourage mob family associates to break omertà and testify, without fear of retribution.

"The idea that they had to protect people wasn't something that the legislation necessarily contemplated, but it became a reality that they had to deal with," says Raneta Mack, a law professor at Creighton University. "They were scrambling and flying by the seat of their pants."

Early mistakes by the program, reported by Business Week and Newsweek in the late 70s and early 80s, included failing to provide relocated witnesses with proper documents to prove their new identities and giving witnesses suspiciously attention-grabbing names like "T. Kennedy" and "John Philip Sousa." In one case, the program informed a veterinarian that a family dog's identity could not be revealed because it was in the witness protection program.

In more recent years, the program appears to have gotten its act together a little more, although public information on the experiences of protected witnesses is limited, according to Washington and Lee University law professor Nora Demleitner. She says that, as far as she knows, no protected witness has ever been killed. Program officials also told the Arizona Republic in 2017 that the recidivism rate among protected witnesses is around 18 percent, regardless of any prior criminal charges. (The ten-year recidivism rate for former state prisoners is 83 percent, per Bureau of Justice Statistics.)

Since the program's inception, it has expanded beyond the mafia to include former members of motorcycle gangs and street gangs; collaborators of the Oklahoma City Bomber; and even several people the government considers "Known or Suspected Terrorists" (a few of whom the Witness Protection Program lost track of in recent years). However, none of these protected witnesses have remotely approached 6ix9ine's level of celebrity. "I don't even know where you would put someone like Tekashi to hide him away," Demleitner says. "Of the cases I'm thinking of, this is a very unusual one to put someone into federal protection."

"Sammy the Bull" Gravano, a former Gambino hitman whose testimony helped bring down John Gotti, famously underwent facial plastic surgery when he went into the witness protection program. However, liposuction and a nose job left him looking little changed, and he eventually stopped trying to hide his identity. ''I asked the doctor if I could look like Robert Redford, do it. But he said, 'No,'" he told the Arizona Republic.

According to Sherriff Ibrahim, a procedural dermatologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center and fellow at the American Academy of Dermatology, it isn't really possible to alter someone's face that dramatically. "Other than a nose job, brow lift, face lift, fat transfer, etc., there isn't anything major that can realistically be done," he says. "And I don't think those things would alter someone's appearance to the point where they're not identifiable."

The US Marshal Service, which operates the program, will nonetheless probably need 6ix9ine to have his tattoos removed in order to enter the program, says Demleitner, though they are unlikely to pay for the treatments. (The rapper has estimated that he has over 200 tattoos of the number "69" alone, according to Vulture.) "The government can't force him to do that," Mack says. "But that's the only way it's going to work."

Ibrahim says that 6ix9ne's tattoos—despite their number and locations—"wouldn't be that hard to get rid of." Today's tattoo removal lasers shoot high amounts of energy at tattoos very quickly, causing ink particles to break up under the skin, where they are consumed by housekeeping cells called macrophages and cleared from the skin. Dark colors like black are pretty easy to remove—so the large 69 on his forehead and neck should come off fine—while brighter colors like red, white, and yellow, can leave blotches, Ibrahim says. (6ix9ine has a large red rose tattooed on his forehead.)

Though the procedure is safe, Ibrahim says it can be about as painful as getting a tattoo. Side effects can include bleeding and swelling, and because tattoo-removal lasers also may target some of the melanin under the skin, darker-skinned people may experience skin-lightening. It's also incredibly expensive: Ibrahim estimated that 6ix9ine's face tattoos alone could require up to ten treatments, each of which may cost upwards of $1,500. Might health insurance cover some of the costs? "Not a chance," Ibrahim says.

And even if he were able to alter his appearance considerably, there are plenty of reasons why a person like 6ix9ine might find witness protection undesirable. For one thing, there's the stress of complete dislocation. "You can't let anyone know your new identity, "Mack says "You can't call grandma anymore. You're losing a part of yourself by entering the Witness Protection Program." In addition to a new identity, an initial stipend, and some job training, the program now provides psychological counseling for relocated witnesses. Still, Mack says the "psychological burden" of giving up one's former life causes many witnesses to leave the program. Indeed, a number of turncoat mobsters have reported choosing to forgo witness protection in recent years, living openly on social media and sometimes even writing books about their experiences.

Which brings up another potential downside to entering the program: In today's world, it's increasingly hard for a person in their 20s or 30s to live a regular life without using social media—let alone give up millions of lucrative social media followers. "That may have been fine for a 65-year-old ex-mobster who entered the program ten years ago and never was on Facebook and couldn't care less," Demleitner says. "It's not going to work for 23 year olds, whose life has been dominated by [social media]."

And even if they don't create social media accounts themselves, witnesses are increasingly at risk of exposure by others. Colombo family black sheep John Franzese Jr., who testified against his father, had his cover blown when someone at an addiction-recovery group recognized him and posted about it on Facebook. It's possible that facial-recognition software could also put protected witnesses at risk: Facebook, for example, has amassed what is considered the largest facial recognition database in the world to facilitate automatic photo-tagging. "As much as [police surveillance and] law enforcement take advances of facial recognition, for [the witness protection program], it has to be a nightmare," Demleitner says.

Obviously, after the trial, 6ix9ine can't return to the deli counter he used to work at near Myrtle and Broadway, but it's hard to imagine him landing somewhere like Montana or Nebraska—even with his hair shorn and tattoos removed—without immediately drawing Reddit posts claiming to have spotted him. And besides, he may not even want to disappear. There's a lot of money to be made off of being 6ix9ine, and he may not know how to be anyone else.