For many years Jimmy "the Weasel" Fratianno practiced his craft diligently and without attracting undue attention—which was just the way he wanted it, since part of his craft involved murder. Then, in 1977, believing there was a mob contract on his life, the Weasel found another racket. The avowed mob hit man and onetime acting head of the Los Angeles Cosa Nostra decided to sing for a living, with federal prosecutors as his audience. For 10 years, from December 1977 to August 1987, Fratianno was the Justice Department's star witness, fingering such notorious mob bosses as Frank "Funzi" Tieri, Carmine "Junior" Persico and the head of his own former crime family, the late Dominic Brooklier. As a paid informant Fratianno was sheltered by the federal witness protection program, which provided him with bodyguards, financial support and a series of phony identities. But last August, Fratianno's government caretakers cut off his living allowance. "The program was never intended to be a retirement plan for former mobsters," says Justice Department spokesman John Russell. "Mr. Fratianno, in our judgment, can take care of himself."

Fratianno, however, was furious. "You don't just take a guy after 10 years and throw him out on the street," he protested. Especially if he's accustomed to a comfortable life-style. In addition to about $25,000 a year for himself and his wife, Jean, Fratianno received free medical and dental care and frequent moving expenses—a necessary perquisite for someone with an alleged $250,000 contract on his head. Also, he has been earning royalties from two books about his life as a hit man and has received hefty fees for appearing in TV crime documentaries and as an expert witness in civil trials. He owns a condominium in Texas, and two years ago he built a $190,000 oceanside home somewhere on the West Coast. The Justice Department did refuse to pay for the cleaning and reglazing of Mrs. Weasel's mink but acknowledges that Fratianno's upkeep to date has cost more than $1 million.

Recently, in a meeting behind the drawn curtains of an airport hotel restaurant, Fratianno chatted about his criminal career and the trials of retirement with writer Joyce Wadler. He arrived alone. Protection? Fratianno claims the only time he had it was when he was on his way to court.

How is it, living as a protected witness?

It's tough. I've moved quite a bit. Sometimes every five, six months. Sometimes we get to stay in a place a year. How many times did I change my name? Honey, I don't know. It's been worse on my wife. The first years I was on the program, I was doing a lot of testifying, didn't want her around. She lived a miserable existence. They [federal officials] treated her like a dog. In the 10 years I was on the program, I figure we been separated five, six years.

The government says you're able to take care of yourself now.

They're full of baloney. They're lying, honey. How you gonna take care of yourself? I can't get a job. They're saying they spent all this money on me, well, I didn't see that money. I got $15 a day. You think you can eat in a hotel for $15? You get a pot of coffee, it's five bucks. They paid the rent, they paid the medical, but all the time I was on the program I had to buy my own cars, and I bought nine. Somebody makes [identifies] the car, or you move, you got to sell them—that's their rule. I figure I lost $50,000, $60,000 on cars.

What about money you put away?

They're saying that I got the book going and [they talk about] the houses I have. Well, I can't sell the houses now, and I don't know whether I'll make any money on the book or not. They left me stranded, honey.

I see you're wearing a diamond.

I've had them for years, honey [removing two rings and passing them over]. They're a little dirty. Two-and-a-half carats that is, the other one is one-and-a-half. Honey, I bought that stuff cheap. I used to deal in diamonds.

Didn't you make money when you were with the Los Angeles family?

Sure I made some money when I was with the family, honey. I also spent a lot of years in prison. I got made in [initiated into] the Los Angeles family in '47. When I went to prison in 1954, I left $150,000 with the family, and they blew it. I should have gave it to my wife, I would have been better off. I had $150,000 in the street, shylocking. I owned two bars. I had a dress shop on Ninth and Broadway in Los Angeles. I was making close to $15,000 a week. When I got out of prison, in 1960, I went into the trucking business, and I grossed $1.4 million till the government broke me and sent me to jail. If I knew what I know today, I would never have joined the family, 'cause all I did was make money for everybody else. I was a good hustler.

You look like a guy who liked to pull a scam.

No, I would very seldom shake anybody down. I liked to make money, but I never cheated a friend. I have a rule: If I'm in business with you, you could leave me a million, it would be there. I don't cheat guys, honey, I really don't. I would if the guy was a millionaire and it wouldn't hurt him, but I would never do it to a guy who was a working guy.

One of the five people you admitted to killing in the '50s was a friend.

Frankie Niccoli. I tried to save his life, honey. We did time together in the Ohio penitentiary in the '30s. When he got out, he went with Mickey Cohen [an L.A. bookie]. Jack Dragna [then L.A. boss] was debating with Mickey, trying to split up the town, and Mickey didn't want to. So Dragna says, "Jimmy, you know Frankie Niccoli, tell him to leave. Give him one warning, and then we're gonna kill him." He wouldn't go.

How did you do it?

There was me and four guys. Frankie stood up, and this big guy, Joe Dippolito, grabbed him and put the rope on him, and then me and another guy pulled it from one end and the other. [He laughs.]

How long had you and this guy been friends?

Thirteen years.

So he's looking at you, he knows what's going on—did he say anything?

No. He couldn't talk, honey, because we were choking him. Later we buried him in a vineyard near San Bernadino. We buried several people there.

How did you feel about having to kill someone who was a friend?

Nothing you can do about it. I had a job to do and I did it, you know what I mean, honey? Nothing I can do.

As a protected witness, have you had any close calls?

I had a guy make me in San Juan one time. It was in '81, just after the Funzi trial. I'm in the Holiday Inn, it's New Year's Eve, and as I'm walking in the lobby, a guy looks at me and says, "You're Jimmy Fratianno." I said, "No speak English." I called the [federal] marshal and checked him out. He was just a guy there with his family. He wasn't Italian. But he recognized me. Another time, a guy on a plane sitting next to me is reading Newsweek, and I'm on the cover. So I moved the seat. It was very funny.

The big question is, why should the government pay money to keep up the lifestyle of an admitted killer?

Well, I never killed an innocent person, that's No. 1. No. 2, they were all gangsters. Either they were out to get me or I'd get them, that's the sum of it. I'm the most important person they ever had on this program. I sent 30 [Mafia] guys to jail—six bosses. I testified all over the United States. There should be an exception, hon', you know what I mean?

Jimmy, are you a better snitch than you were a made guy?

No way. No way, honey. I proved myself, that's why the bosses promoted me. I could do a lot of things other people couldn't do. I could set people up. I could kill them. I was a good moneymaker. I was the guy, anytime they wanted somebody killed in L.A., I got the contract, okay? I killed half the guys that were killed in L.A. during the time I was there. So the boss knew what he was doing. He picked me when he had something tough to do.

How do you expect to die?

Natural. [He laughs.]

How do you want to be remembered?

I don't know, honey, I don't know. As an honest guy with friends. I did a lot for the government. More than any living human has done, period. And they don't appreciate it.