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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Wild West Has Passed, But Not Its Marshals

NEW YORK -- The cowboy hats and horses are long gone, distant memories of a Wild West frontier where justice was dispensed by U.S. marshals named Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp.

In the 21st century, the nation's first lawmen have a broad global mission, capturing fugitives, protecting judges, running the Witness Protection Program, and even training Iraqis.

Deputies for the U.S. Marshals Service protected witnesses during the historic trial of Saddam Hussein and assisted the U.S. military in transferring the deposed Iraqi leader to local authorities for his execution.

It's a long way from home for the law enforcement descendants of Earp, Masterson and "Wild Bill" Hickock, members of an agency founded by George Washington. Since 1789, the U.S. marshals have gone wherever the action is.

For Paul McErlean, a deputy U.S. marshal who grew up on Long Island, that meant escorting a shackled Hussein from cellblock to court during his trial.

"It's been a wild experience," McErlean, 30, said from Iraq. He is one of several marshals who volunteered to train Iraqis, hoping to secure the integrity of a justice system riddled with corruption and fear.

Iraqi courthouses are routinely bombed, and more than 60 judges have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Judges travel with no fewer than four bodyguards, McErlean said. The heightened security still was not enough when the marshals' Iraqi interpreter was ambushed and murdered after nearly a year of service.

The marshals in Iraq are one example of the service's expanded global role since Sept. 11, 2001. But the core mission remains the same -- tracking down fugitives and providing judicial security, said Joseph Guccione, the U.S. marshal for New York. "Getting bad guys off the street, whether mobsters or terrorists, remain a priority," said Guccione, in his Manhattan office.

A reminder of the constant threat to federal judges came two years ago, when the husband and mother of Joan Humphrey Lefkow, a U.S. district court judge, were found dead in her Chicago home, slain by an unemployed electrician angry over Lefkow's dismissal of a malpractice suit.

Judges across the country are now offered enhanced home protection, including high-tech surveillance systems.

Guccione, whose district covers Manhattan, the Bronx and New York's northern suburbs, joined the U.S. Marshals Service 15 years ago. His interest was piqued as a child through his fascination with the Old West and the early roots of "America's star" -- the five-point star worn by the marshals throughout their storied history.

The service also runs the Witness Protection Program, which was created 36 years ago and is one of the government's greatest crime-busting tools. About 17,000 people have entered the program, and insiders can testify against criminals with the knowledge that a new life awaits them somewhere else once they leave the witness stand.

"It's been said there are a few things that America has contributed to civilization -- the Constitution, jazz, baseball," said Joseph Paonessa, who worked with the program for more than 20 years. "But I would like to add the Witness Protection Program. It is uniquely American."