on the run and living scared

Hiding in a town 800 miles from Baltimore, Charlie Wilhelm remained a prisoner of his past -- and a wanted man.

November 27, 2001|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

there is a contract out on me. P On March 29, 1996, Charlie Wilhelm made this entry, his first, in a journal that would document his two-year exile from Baltimore. Relocated to a small town in Alabama and living under a phony name, Charlie learned in a phone call from the FBI that he was the target of two hired killers. His work as an informant was paying off for the agency. But the price for Charlie was an all-consuming fear:

There is the fear ... of someone recognizing you, the fear of someone finding out who you really are. There is the fear [of] the people who are out to kill you, kill your kids or your wife just to prove a point. The fear ... of being followed ... that every time you approach your car -- is there a bomb in it that is going to explode when you turn the ignition switch? The fear ... [that] they throw a Molotov cocktail in the window and it lands in your child's room. ... The fear ... they do a drive-by shooting. The fear, every time it rains at night, [because] you know from experience that's a perfect time to whack you.

For nearly five months, Charlie had worn a concealed tape recorder to gather evidence against cronies in his crime ring in Baltimore. He'd caught drug dealers on tape and a secretary in the U.S. Attorney's office offering to sell confidential information. But his most impressive case involved the 1978 murder of a young construction worker. Charlie had taped a man describing the crime and implicating himself and two others -- including Charlie's former partner, William R. Isaacs.

The FBI had moved Charlie and his family to Decatur, Ala., for their protection. But once the arrests began, word spread quickly on the streets of Baltimore: Charlie was the snitch. With the murder suspects free on bail, any sense of safety the Wilhelms felt quickly evaporated.

In Baltimore, Charlie's grown son from a previous marriage found cheese on his doorstep. Charlie's brother and in-laws reported being followed through Hampden by neighborhood thugs who called them "cheese eaters."

Another word for rat, Charlie noted in his journal.

Even more ominous was the drawing Charlie's son and mother-in-law found in their mailboxes.

The picture showed a person slicing another person's throat. The blade of the knife was inscribed "Wilhelm." And the killer in the drawing said: "Death becomes you."

Worried that his 7-year-old son and teen-age daughter could be hunted down in Alabama and made targets, Charlie phoned the principals at their new schools.

[I told them] that I had given my children a code name -- Warlock. That if anyone came to the school to pick them up, unless they used this name they weren't to release them.

"Warlock" had been Charlie's FBI code name. Now, 800 miles from home, he made it his safeguard against kidnapping.

Charlie Wilhelm's move to a little town in the Bible Belt was like Don Corleone of The Godfather showing up in Mayberry.

The man who lived in a Formstone rowhouse with no front yard in noisy Hampden now found himself with a yard to mow in a quiet town near a wildlife refuge.

There are more wild animals here than I've ever seen in my whole life. Cottonmouths, alligators, bats, brown recluses.

The town of 54,000 rolled up every night by 6, and on Sunday, it seemed Charlie and his family were the only ones not in church. Suspicious neighbors thought his Lincoln Continental, with its red leather seats, looked like a pimp mobile.

His desire for a "normal" life after 20 years as a career criminal had led him here, and now he struggled with the consequences of his decision.

In his journal, which would grow to 960 pages, he reminisced about his exciting life as a "wiseguy" and obsessed over the future. Charlie's children didn't understand why they were uprooted from their home without warning. His wife, Gina, missed her family in Baltimore. Charlie was desperate to find a job, to make his family feel safe, to cling to his belief that he had done the right thing. Keeping a journal was an effort to stay sane.

Despite the urging of the FBI, the Wilhelms had refused to go into the federal witness protection program. It would have provided new legal identities -- birth certificates and Social Security numbers -- but would also have meant ceasing contact with friends and relatives. "It would be like being buried without a funeral," Gina said.

Instead, they used the last name Williams. The FBI changed the children's school records, but otherwise Charlie and Gina had no identification bearing their assumed name. That made job-hunting nearly impossible

The FBI paid them $2,500 a month, but Charlie knew the flow of money would end soon. How would he support his family then? He had no identification he could use -- his birth certificate, driver's license and Social Security card would give away his real name -- and no legal work history to put on a resume.

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