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Somerset grad retires from U.S. Justice Department

Sometimes Steve T'Kach looks back on his life in Washington, D.C., and wonders if it was all a dream.

It's not usual for a small town boy to make it all the way to the environs of the U.S. Justice Department, but he did.

T'Kach, 56, is back in the Hudson area after taking an early retirement from his government position. He took time last week and reflected on anything but a standard career path.

He graduated from Somerset High School in 1974, went on to earn a bachelor's degree from UW-River Falls and then added a degree from William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.

In the meantime he worked as a 911 dispatcher for St. Croix County and served as a volunteer on ambulance runs in Hudson, areas of experience that helped him secure a job at Justice.

T'Kach went to Washington for an interview with a legal firm on K Street in 1990. "I didn't really like the job possibilities," he said.

But he swung by the Justice Department and landed a position. It started an amazing career.

His background as a 911 dispatcher helped him land a position in the electronic surveillance division.

"The position required one year of legal experience," he said. "They took into consideration my pro bono work for the Polk County District Attorney and my technical knowledge," T'Kach said.

On his first day, during lunch break, the enormity of a move from a dispatcher in Hudson to a position in the Justice Department hit him.

"I was standing on Pennsylvania Avenue with the Justice Department on one side of me and the FBI building on the other and the Capitol in front of me. I wondered if I bit off more than I could chew."

Apparently not. He enjoyed a 22-year career in Washington. "I had great bosses and great officemates," he said.

The highlight of his legal career came on Jan. 1, 1995, when he took over the Federal Witness Security Program. "It was too sensitive a job to advertise," T'Kash said. He was approached for the position and accepted.

"I was humbled by the offer," he said "Not only because it involved managing a $25-$50 million budget, but also it is the most sensitive and secretive program in the department."

The job was attractive because of the absence of traditional Washington red tape.

"A lot of government is run by committee. It might take six to 12 months to change a policy," T'Kach said. As head of Witness Security, he made policy decisions on the spot.

The program operated by the U.S. Marshals Service is designed to protect threatened witnesses before, during and after trial.

He said most people form an idea about the program from its portrayal in movies and on television, but there is much more to the process.

"It's important to have witness come forward," he said. There are four basic questions to answer when considering someone for the program:

  • Is it a case of national significance?
  • Is the witness testimony significant?
  • Is there a bona fide threat to the witness?
  • Is the witness more dangerous to the community than the value of his testimony?

    T'Kach said about 150 persons a year are placed in witness protection and relocated.

    "It's a dramatic decision for witnesses," he said. "They can never go back. U.S. marshals appear at their house and take them away to an orientation center and create a new life, then hide them in plain sight."

    "Relocation is only funded for 12 to 18 months. The witness and his spouse, if able, are expected to get jobs, the kids are expected to go to school," T'Kach said.

    "It's a program of last resort and 95 to 97 percent of the people we relocate are criminals and 80 percent of all witnesses go to prison first. Former Attorney General Janet Reno established the policy of 'no free rides,'" he said. There are seven witness protection prisons around the country."

    "No witness has been injured or killed while following the rules," T'Kach said while he knocked on wood.

    In his last assignment at Justice, T'Kach was detailed to Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization, headquartered in Lyon, France where he dealt with cases from all over the world.

    He said he took early retirement because, "the Justice Department had been pretty much apolitical, but in the last few years things have changed."

    He has been doing some legal consultant work while building a new house.

    He is cautious about reprisals from his former job and doesn't allow his photograph to be taken. Even his Wisconsin driver's license has no photo.

    "I check the rearview mirror when I get in my car," he said.

    T'Kach said he never knew protected witnesses were relocated and enough time has passed since he headed up the program that he is no longer privy to its current secrets.

    "I had an important job in Washington but I never felt important. I always knew I would come home," he said.

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