Jackee Taylor was too young to protest when her family was taken from their home in the middle of the night by federal agents.
Just 7 years old, Taylor again had no choice a few months later when her family was put on a plane in Florida and told to start a new life with new names in faraway Montana.
Nearly 30 years later, the events of her childhood continue to haunt the Billings woman.
Taylor has been in the federal witness protection program since 1981 when, fearing retaliation by the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, her family was enrolled into the secretive government program.
Now, decades later and far removed from the dangers of her past, Taylor has grown so frustrated with her would-be protectors that she wants out and her story told.
“I want people to know exactly what the witness protection program is all about,” said Taylor, now a 36-year-old waitress at a local bar and casino. “It’s not like the movies. They do not give you money. They do not set you up and help you out. I see us more as being dumped.”
Taylor’s biggest frustration is that she was never given a new birth certificate. Without it, she said, she has had a lifetime of frustrations.
“When I was a kid I couldn’t play softball for a while,” she said. “My mom begged and pleaded, but I didn’t have a birth certificate.”
Joining the Girl Scouts and, later, enrolling in college, were made more difficult because she did not have a birth certificate, she said.
“I had to sit down with the whole (college admissions) board, and I had to have people write letters saying they knew my family,” she said.
Not having the document became a hurdle when Taylor wanted to get married, she said. A clerk in Yellowstone County refused to issue her a marriage certificate because Taylor didn’t have a birth certificate. She instead went to Carbon County, where a clerk accepted her passport in lieu of a birth certificate.
Taylor and her two siblings were issued passports about 20 years ago, but Taylor has since lost hers and has been unable to get a replacement.
A passport is nearly as good as a birth certificate for establishing identity and citizenship. But Taylor said she has been unable to replace the lost document because she needs the help of the federal agency.
“Nobody seems to be on our case anymore,” she said of her efforts with the U.S. Marshals Service, which runs the federal witness protection program. “It seems like we’ve fallen through the cracks.
“I want a passport. I want a birth certificate. I want to be able to go to Mexico on vacation. I want to be able to get my marriage license in Yellowstone County. It’s just been nothing but problems.”
Taylor said she has tried unsuccessfully to get her original birth certificate. But even if she did get the document, she wonders if she can legally use it.
There is also an emotional question: Could she, after all these years, go back to her birth name?
“I’ve always felt like I’m in identity limbo,” Taylor said. “My Social Security number isn’t my Social Security number. My name isn’t my name and there’s no way to be who I really am.”
Taylor has doubts whether she was ever really in any danger. She suspects that the federal agency placed her family in the program as a way to control her father, a member of a motorcycle gang who agreed to testify against fellow members in several high-profile murder trials.
The U.S. Marshals Service in Billings referred questions about Taylor’s case to the agency’s headquarters in Washington D.C., which did not return messages seeking comment.
The witness protection program was created by the federal Organized Crime Control Act of 1970. The program provides for the protection and relocation of federal witnesses involved in cases against violent defendants and organized crime.
By 2006, more than 18,000 people had been enrolled in the program, according to information on a government website. The program is overseen by a special unit within the U.S. Marshals Service.
Taylor’s mother, sister and brother also still live in Billings but did not want to be interviewed for this story.
Taylor acknowledges that she has only her word about her experience in the witness protection program. She has never hesitated to tell people about it when she felt she needed to, although she’s often met with skepticism.
“I’ve had some raised eyebrows, but what can I do?” Taylor said of the reaction she gets when she tells others that she is in the federal witness protection program. “I’m not going to lie. I have to tell them the truth. I don’t really have any proof, but I have no reason to lie.”
Jacqueline Crouch was born in 1974, the oldest of her parents’ three children. Her father, Clarence “Butch” Crouch, was a member of the Banditos motorcycle gang in Texas in the 1960s.
In the late ’60s, Crouch moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he shed his allegiance to the Banditos and joined the Hell’s Angels, the most notorious of the country’s motorcycle gangs. Crouch rose to become the vice president of the Cleveland Chapter of the Hell’s Angels.
Taylor recalls little of her early family life that would seem unusual. She remembers that her father and all his friends rode motorcycles. They all had the same symbol on the back of their jackets. Her mother was a nurse.
A few years ago, Taylor learned of a documentary film released in 1984, “Hell’s Angels Forever.” The film includes footage of a Hell’s Angels gathering in the late 1970s.
“I watched it and saw myself,” she said.
Taylor’s life as the child of a Hell’s Angel changed in 1981.
“My mother noticed there were people parked across the street, sitting in a car, watching,” she said. “She knew something had happened, so she packed up all the kids and we went to Florida.”
A friend helped her mother get a nursing job. Everything seemed fine for a while, she said, although she didn’t see her father much during that time.
“Then they contacted my mom and told her that my father had gotten into some trouble and that he was willing to help the prosecution, but that was putting us all in danger,” Taylor said. “They wanted her to get us in the witness protection program.”
Taylor and her siblings, who were 7, 5 and 3, were not told what was going to happen.
“We were woke up at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning and they whisked us all away in a black van,” she said. “We traded vans every 50 miles or so, at gas stations. We were taken to a safe house. I’m not quite sure, but I have an idea where it is in Florida.”
The family stayed at the safe house for several months, through Thanksgiving and Christmas of 1981. They were given one wing of the large, stone house, and the kids each had their own room.
Armed marshals patrolled the fenced property.
Taylor said her most vivid memories of the safe house are of a large swimming pool in the back, and the hours she spent practicing how to write her new name.
The name was chosen by her mother. Taylor is not sure why.
There were others in the safe house, some of whom were friendly and some who kept to themselves. Taylor and her siblings were the only children. They could not leave the house except to play occasionally in the backyard.
“I remember we took one big trip to Kmart in a black van,” she said.
For Taylor and her sister, the large safe house became their “Dream House,” she said.
“We had a very extravagant Christmas that year,” she said. “I even remember some of the presents. I guess that was the first Christmas I really remember. There were a lot of gifts.”
Shortly after New Year’s, Taylor’s stay at the safe house came to end. In early January 1982, the family was put on a plane bound for Montana.
When they arrived in Billings, the family was taken to a tired motel on Montana Avenue, the Esquire Motor Inn.
It was a stark and drastic change in both climate and lifestyle.
“I am very bitter about being put up in that motel,” she said. “Still, to this day, I wonder why they put us there. I just never understood.”
Taylor’s life slowly became familiar in her new surroundings. Her mother got a new job, found a house on the city’s West End and enrolled the kids in school. For the first year, her father came to visit for extended periods.
Then, in October 1982, he told his children he was going away to work on a ship. He wouldn’t be able to call or write, he said.
Taylor now knows her father actually left to begin serving a prison sentence of 10 to 40 years for manslaughter. He cut a deal with prosecutors; he would receive a reduced sentence in exchange for his testimony against several motorcycle gang members charged with murder.
As part of the deal, Crouch admitted to the 1974 slaying of a rival gang member.
Taylor has found several newspaper clippings from the Cleveland Plain Dealer reporting the testimony her father gave at the murder trials in the early ’80s.
One report describes Clarence Crouch as “a 13-year member of the gang” who “surrendered to authorities in November 1981.”
Crouch “became a protected federal witness, with the government supporting his wife and three children,” the report continues.
Another report describes Crouch as an admitted drug dealer and user who “boasts about having 13 illegitimate children.”
Crouch was reported to have stabbed a girlfriend in the foot and shot another girlfriend in the leg.
“Once he impulsively shot a boy’s dog, and another time, he cut off a puppy’s tail,” according to one news account.
Taylor said she slowly learned of her father’s life from her mother and other family members. She feared that Hell’s Angels gang members would show up at the door.
“I was for years, years and years, afraid of the sound of a motorcycle,” she said. “I cringed and cried in terror.”
Taylor’s father served eight years in prison and now lives a reclusive life in another state. She has talked to him a few times, she said, but her sister and brother have had no contact with him, she said.
Taylor agrees that the witness protection program may have saved her life if the threat against her family was real. But several events through the years seem to indicate otherwise, she said, including a chance meeting at a family gathering with a former Hell’s Angels gang member who knew her father.
“He said, ‘You have nothing to be afraid of. We were never after you and your brother and your sister and your mother. It was always your Dad. So you tell your mother that I said so,’ ” Taylor recalls the man saying.
Taylor now believes that even if it was necessary to place her family in witness protection, she should no longer have to depend on the federal agency to help her with documentation.
She also doesn’t feel the need to be protected: Whatever threat existed in her childhood is long gone, she said.
But finding someone who can help her accomplish those goals has been an endless revolving door. The only contact she has with anyone in the program is a man who says his name is “Don” in Washington D.C. He won’t give his last name, she said, or a number for her to reach him.
“He just calls me occasionally when I’ve started calling (the local marshals office) demanding answers,” she said. “Don will call me back a few days later. Then he makes all these promises and never returns my call again.
“I’ve called every person I can possibly think of. I’ve called senators. I’ve called the governor’s office. I’ve called the U.S. Attorney’s Office. I’ve called the U.S. Marshals office, and I’ve called D.C. I’ve called many, many people and they just pass the buck.
“I think that somebody can do something. It’s just a matter of one of those marshals taking an hour out of the day, going to the top, and saying hey, these people are in limbo, we need to do something for them. That’s all it would really take, and nobody seems to want to do that. That’s really frustrating.”
Taylor said she also believes that children should not be put into the program.
“That is my big thing,” she said. “I wish I would have been adopted by different family members, my grandparents in Ohio. It’s kind of sad that that decision was made for us.”