CLEVELAND, Ohio – John Elliott spent his career protecting and hiding other people’s secrets.
Elliott, who began the U.S. Marshal’s witness protection program in northern Ohio in the early 1970s and whose son, Peter, followed in his footsteps into the agency, died Friday morning in his sleep. He was 83.
Elliott, of Fairview Park, played a key role at the height of Cleveland’s mob wars, when he and other marshals safely stashed witnesses and informants at a time when violence among opposing factions became commonplace.
“He was one helluva good cop,” said Roger Smyth, a retired Lyndhurst police chief who worked closely with Elliott after the slaying of Irish mobster Danny Greene in 1977. “He protected a lot of people. Integrity was his second name. Everyone respected him.”
Elliott served in the U.S. Navy from 1954 to 1958 and then as a Cuyahoga County sheriff’s deputy until 1967. He then spent 23 years as a deputy U.S. marshal, where he tracked fugitives and helped form the federal witness protection unit.
The unit, which continues on a broader scale today, helps place key informants or witnesses in a new location and under a new identity, to protect them from the criminals they left behind.
His experience with the unit became important in the late 1970s, when the Italian mob obtained lists of informants who began cooperating with authorities. Fearing organized crime figures would kill the informants, prosecutors relied on Elliott to provide protection to families of those who testified. He also took part in numerous mob investigations.
“Boy, he was a good guy, a tough guy,” said Carmen Marino, the retired Cuyahoga County prosecutor who brought many of those cases to trial. “He was someone who you could turn a job over to, and he would do it well.
“That type of reliability was comforting. When you’re in trial, you can’t be bothered by every little thing. [Elliott] knew how important it was that our witnesses would never be tampered with.”
Over the years, Elliott sought to leave the ranks as a deputy marshal and become the agency’s top leader in northern Ohio. He was passed over for the job three times. In 1990, he retired from law enforcement.
Years later, his son, Peter, joined the Marshal Service as a deputy. The son later went to work for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. In 2003, the younger Elliott returned to the marshal’s service as its top officer in northern Ohio. He is one of the longest serving U.S. marshals in the country.
“He was a man of his word and a man of character,” the son said of his father Friday. “He lived and died the life of a deputy marshal.”
Rocco Pollutro, a retired Cleveland police chief, knew John Elliott for decades. They shared information and collaborated on cases when Pollutro worked in Cleveland’s intelligence and organized crime units.
“He had the strongest handshake of anyone I knew, and his integrity was just as strong,” Pollutro said. “When you called him, he showed up. That’s what he was about. That’s what his family is about.”
Elliott remained close to law enforcement by serving on the Cleveland police’s Pipes and Drums Band for several years.
He leaves four children: Thomas, Catherine, Patrick and Peter; 12 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. His wife Clorinda preceded him in death.
Services will be private.