Ron Schoenneman remembers the turning point--the day in 1972 when he sat with business partner Carmen Bastone in a Chicago restaurant, a snub-nosed .38 hidden under the table.

It was a moment he had dreaded for months.

He and Bastone for several years had run an operation that involved more than 100 employes and $9 million in profits on stolen tractor-trailers. He had suspected for some time that Bastone was planning to double-cross him. Finally, he had decided he would have to kill Bastone along with two of his brothers to maintain control of the business.

But as Schoenneman sat there, he realized he couldn't pull the trigger, and he knew then he would have to find a way out.

Three months later he was working under cover for the FBI. While agents provided round-the-clock protection for his family, Schoenneman was out on the street putting together cases that would eventually lead to the conviction of 32 members of organized crime, including Bastone.

Hoping for a new start, Schoenneman, along with his wife and six children, then joined the federal witness security program.

When he agreed to cooperate with the FBI, he says the government promised him a new identity with full documentation, living and medical expenses, eventually a new job, and even the possibility of a government loan to help him get started in his own business.

But instead, Schoenneman says he and his family were dumped in a motel in a small city in the Midwest with new names but no identification, no car and no driver's license. When he began to ask about the job, he says, the U.S. marshals assigned to protect him handed him the newspaper want ads.

When his oldest daughter developed scoliosis, a serious spinal disease, he says the government refused to pay for the expensive back brace or the weekly therapy sessions she needed. The condition went uncorrected.

And today, after nine years, Schoenneman says he still has no birth certificates for himself or his children, no documentation to prove that he went to high school or college, no credit cards or credit rating and no cover story to use on a resume.

He and his family were eventually given new Social Security numbers, but after all this time, he says Social Security still has not transferred credit for the 20 years he contributed to the system.

Finally, in spite of his cooperation with the government, a judge used information that he provided the FBI to sentence him in 1975 to five years in federal prison. When he was released after serving 10 months, his marriage had fallen apart, and he was back where he started--with no job, no money and no background.

The witness security program was created by the Organized Crime Act of 1970 to protect people whose lives are in danger because they provide testimony against organized crime figures. Up to then, many people willing to testify had been intimidated by members of organized crime.

Since the act was passed, 3,784 witnesses have entered the program. Counting family members, more than 12,000 people have been involved.

But since the beginning, there have been major problems with the program and accusations of lax security, false promises and callous disregard for the feelings of the witnesses. There have been congressional investigations, and the U.S. Marshals Service, which has jurisdiction over the program, has been criticized again and again for its handling of the witnesses.

Howard Safir, who has responsibility for the witness protection program as assistant director of operations for the Marshals Service, concedes "it's a problem program. It's always going to be a problem program. Because every element in it is human."

But he says that many of the problems have been corrected since 1978 and that Schoenneman would not have the same problems if he entered the program today. He added that the marshals have lost track of Schoenneman and that he should contact them if he needs help.

One of its major problems, Safir says, is that it's a program designed primarily for criminals rather than normal, law-abiding citizens.

However, a report by the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations, released this month, continued to find major problems with the program and made 25 recommendations for changes including increased funding, giving the attorney general direct responsibility for the program and ending the political appointment process for choosing marshals.

The committee also recommended that the program be modified to deal with higher level white-collar criminals or noncriminal private citizens who may come across information on organized crime.

Greg Baldwin, a former New York prosecutor who is an investigator for the subcommittee, said the program is unequipped to deal with those people. "The lower you are on the criminal ladder, the scummier you are, the more bearable the program is," he said. "If you never had a credit card, it doesn't matter if you don't have credit. If you didn't go to high school, it doesn't matter that you don't have a high school or college diploma."

But even the toughest critics acknowledge that the marshals have an almost impossible job.

In many cases, the marshals are dealing with hardened criminals who enter the program simply to escape long prison terms or retribution. A number of the witnesses have continued their criminal activities, sometimes with the unwitting help of the federal marshals who protect them, under new identities that shield their criminal records from local law enforcement authorities.

Safir says more than 95 percent of the participants are criminals, many of them violent. One protected witness, Marion Albert Pruett, has been implicated in five murders this year.

Safir said that about 15 percent of the witnesses return to criminal activities. It is not a figure he is pleased with, but he does point out that it is better than the prison recidivism rate, which he says is well over 50 percent.

The witnesses also have an abnormally high suicide rate--about 50 times the national rate.

One suicide was that of Frank Calimano, a legitimate New York businessman who entered the program in December, 1978. His brother had been a herion addict, and Calimano, who had no criminal record, worked to penetrate organized crime circles in cooperation with federal investigators.

His wife, Vivian Calimano, told a Senate subcommittee that the family was treated like "criminals" after they went into the program. She said it took six to eight months to get Social Security cards and the family was forced to make up their own background story with nothing to back it up. After two years, she still had not been able to get a marriage certificate.

Calimano hanged himself June 5, 1980, and his son told the subcommittee that his father believed the government "had betrayed him." Mrs. Calimano said that after he died, she was unable to obtain his veterans' funeral benefits or any Social Security benefits because the records had never been processed.

Safir would not talk specifically about the Calimano case, which is under litigation, but he said the program is designed for criminals, not for a private citizen who decides he wants to help the government.

It testimony last December to the Senate subcommittee, Safir said the program "is a last resort. Witnesses should only enter when there is no other alternative. Under the best of circumstances, there will be considerable trauma. The program does not have the capability to make a witness whole again."

Of the suicide rate, he said, "It's high when you compare it to the normal population, but this is not the normal population. Everyone in the program is under a great deal of stress and trauma. They're not ordinary citizens. They have had run-ins with the law. Many have had many divorces and girlfriends, and there is the stress that brings . . . . It doesn't surprise me we're above the national rate on suicides."

Safir concedes that although there have been improvements, there are still problems with witness documentation. Ten states refuse to assist with documents because they are afraid of being held liable if the witness commits crimes under the new identity. There are also problems with backlogs at the Social Security Administration.

He said job placement has improved since 1978, but "our folks don't have a lot of marketable skills. I have more high-level jobs than I have witnesses to fill." He said the marshals service also feels an obligation to let employers know the criminal background in general terms without revealing their former identities.

Safir added that the marshals are taking great pains now to make sure witnesses do not come into the program believing unrealistic promises by overzealous investigators or prosecutors.

Each witness goes though a preliminary interview, he said, and "the first question is what he's been promised. We try to make it clear what we can and can't do. Quite a few--when they find out they're not going to get a brand new car and a business of their own in another state--back out."

Safir said he believes that by its nature, the witness protection program will always have problems to some degree.

"There's been every conceivable kind of proposal to reform the program. To shift it to the FBI, to the Secret Service . . . . Quite honestly, I don't think anyone wants to take over this program. But there's no more essential program to fight organized crime and drug operations," he said.

Schoenneman, now 46, grew up in Oak Park, a middle-class suburb of Chicago. By the time he was in high school, he was already getting into minor scrapes with the police.

He started college, but was expelled for bad behavior. He held a series of odd jobs, and then got into the truck sales and leasing business where he began to illegally sell mortgaged trucks. By the time he was 30, he had a wife, four children and a $2.8 million civil judgment against him.

"With what I had to pay off at that point," he says, "there was no way I could afford to get into a legitimate business."

So he and a friend began to steal tractor-trailers. With cooperation from a contact in the Illinois secretary of state's office, they obtained titles for the trucks. By the time Schoenneman decided he had to get out of the business, he was selling to customers all over the country.

His chance to get out occurred in April, 1972, when two FBI agents walked up to the front door of his large, elegant Northbrook home outside Chicago and said they wanted to ask some questions. He told them he had some information for them, that he had been thinking of calling the FBI.

Schoenneman, a large man with receding white hair, bushy eyebrows and sideburns, says he had already heard of the witness protection program. He said he had heard rumors about the witnesses "eating steaks, that they really treat you well. That's the image organized crime has about the program."

He says he went into the program because he wanted to provide a decent life for his family away from organized crime. "The one concern in my mind was the future of my family. I felt they deserved better than what my life would eventually lead up to, the embarrassment that would come. I told the FBI I would tell them of everything I had ever been involved in."

Schoenneman said he wanted to start a small, legitimate business in his new life. He didn't expect to match his previous income of $200,000 to $300,000 a year or the old life style. He says he was promised by the marshals that the family would be "comfortable."

Instead, he says he and his family soon found that they were "living on promises" and little more.

When Schoenneman entered the program, he says he was almost broke. While he was working undercover for the FBI, he had continued to pay off local loansharks from his own funds. Promises that he would be repaid were not kept, he says.

The family spent more than two months in a motel with no money, no transportation and no identification.

Schoenneman said that during that time there was only one attempt by the marshals to find a house for the family, and that was a "filthy, broken down house with peeling paint and plaster falling from the ceilings. When we went into the house, my wife started crying. The ceiling was falling down. It was a lower middle-class neighborhood, and this was the real scourge of the neighborhood."

The family refused to move in.

Finally, using $1,000 that had been left to his wife when her mother died, Schoenneman bought a used Plymouth, and with no driver's license or license plates, they drove until they found a house.

When it was time for the children to start school, he discovered that the marshals had done nothing about school records. He complained again and again. Finally, a day before school was scheduled to start, he contacted FBI agents in Chicago who personally collected the records.

With the $950-a-month subsistence payments and the $13,900 from the sale of the Chicago house, the family was able to get by for a couple of years.

But he says there were constant threats from the marshals that the subsistence payments would be cut.

Schoenneman was eventually able to find work at minimum wage, but lost his job because he had to fly back and forth to Chicago to testify against his former associates.

With the help of an FBI agent who had worked on his case in Chicago, he was able to get a job managing an entertainment operation for $150 a week. When it was time to renew his contract after the first year, he was offered a raise to $250 per week. But about that time he was told that a federal judge planned to try him on charges of interstate theft of tractor-trailers. He claims the case was based on information he had voluntarily provided the FBI.

In spite of testimony on his behalf by the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office, the judge sentenced him to a maximum five-year sentence.

Schoenneman spent 10 months in a federal prison in Maxwell, Ala. When he got home in 1976, he had no money, no job and he discovered that his marriage had fallen apart.

He said that his life fell apart then.

"I tried to drink all the whiskey there was in the state of . . . ," he says.

In prison, where he was given a third alias, he had met a number of southern organized crime figures who had offered him jobs, and for a while he says he considered going back to that kind of life

But he says he decided against it.

Today, his life is still difficult. He believes his wife has turned his children against him, and it is difficult for him to see them. He is getting by on a part-time sales job, but has debts of about $25,000 including more than $5,000 in child-support payments.

He talks some day about paying off his debts, remarrying and maybe opening a small restaurant, maybe even going into law enforcement work.

He is bitter about the treatment he says he received from the marshals. He says he's glad he chose not to murder his business partners, but he wonders now whether there might have been another way out.

"They the FBI had no case on me," he said, chain-smoking. "They suspected, but they had no proof. Some people go into the program because someone's out to kill them or because they're trying to get a sentence reduced. But they didn't have anything on me.

"I did it because it was the right thing to do. The least they could have done was to tell me the truth."