Thirty years ago, a notorious Mafia operative known as "Johnny A" left his criminal past behind to testify for the government against his former mob partners. In return for Johnny risking his life as a federal informant, the U.S. Justice Department provided him with a new identity and sent him off to a distant state to start a new life.
Last week, the government gave Johnny - now 71 years old and still living under an assumed identity - a small sum of money and cut him loose.Why was Eugene Ayotte, known in the Detroit underworld of the 1960s by the moniker "Johnny A," given the boot by Uncle Sam?
"I asked them to change my ID," Ayotte explained, a seemingly reasonable request considering that his various forms of identification "don't jive," as he put it.
In the early 1970s, after his testimony was completed, Ayotte received several new forms of identification - including a driver's license and Social Security card - to help his transition to a new life. Pretty soon Johnny had a legitimate job, which he found on his own, and a steady income. The former mob lieutenant had become a regular guy, albeit one whose safety was the responsibility of the Justice Department.
But the company he worked for went bankrupt in 1991, leaving Ayotte without an income. And that's when his recent troubles began.
In 1974, when Johnny first got his job, employers didn't have today's modern means of checking the background of their prospective hires. The driver's license and Social Security card were enough to convince Johnny's boss that he was who he claimed to be.
But a closer look at those documents - like an electronic background check - would reveal that the driver's license and the Social Security card were issued within three weeks of one another in two different states located more than 1,000 miles apart. As if that isn't suspicious enough, official records show that he wasn't issued either until he was 44 years old.
Ayotte says that every time he has sought employment since 1991, the prospective employer has run a computer check on him. Inevitably, he is asked about the disparity in his official records - and why neither was issued until he was a middle-aged man.
"Where were you before then?" employers want to know. So far, he's decided against revealing that he was a swindler in the Detroit Mafia who specialized in arson.
In 1995, frustrated and in debt, Ayotte contacted the government for help - something he hadn't done since 1975, save for a traffic violation he needed expunged. His request was simple: Fix the IDs.
After three years of discussion between Ayotte and the government, a column on the subject (written by us) that irritated Justice officials, and threats to take his case to court, Ayotte was given an ultimatum: Either be relocated again - with a brand-new identity - or be cut loose.
Relocation would mean Ayotte would have to leave his few possessions and friends behind (he wouldn't be allowed to contact anyone), and move away from the small town he's called home for more than 20 years.
So Johnny A chose the second option.
Last week, a Justice Department official arrived at Ayotte's house asking him to sign an agreement saying he would no longer be protected by the government because of "security reasons" pertaining to his IDs.
"I'm signing this under protest," Ayotte told the official, and, desperately needing money, accepted a small payment from the government.
If he had to do it all over again, would he still have crossed over to the government's side 30 years ago? "No way," Johnny A quickly responded. "I don't think I've been treated right. (The Justice Department) treats you just like a little kid. . . . Now here they are trying to sweep me under the carpet after all these years."