Herman Martin's heart had taken a great deal, but in his last days, it reached its limit.

To be sure, he had lost several of the 235 pounds he weighed the day in 1974 he faced Teamster official Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano while wearing a concealed recorder. Shortly before his death July 1, he said he no longer cared about the unhappy end to his two years of unpaid work exposing corruption in the New York garment and trucking industries. Even if the federal government broke its promise to set him up in San Diego with a clean new identity, insurance coverage and money to start a business, he said he could forgive that.

Martin -- the name given him after his real name, Herman Goldfarb, became too well known to organized crime -- said he no longer even saw much point in reliving the painful memory of a murder charge brought against him, the failure of his former federal colleagues to help him and the need to wait for the remarkable reversal of his conviction by the California Supreme Court, on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct, before he could regain a small shred of public honor.

As the federal witness protection program approaches its 20th anniversary, Martin's story provides a useful lesson in what can still go wrong when the government tries to make promises to people living in the gray, fuzzy border between right and wrong.

According to the U.S. Marshals Service, which administers the program, more than 5,400 witnesses and 6,000 family members have been assisted since 1971, many of those relocating to San Diego, which was Martin's home, because of the city's weather, economy and relatively low quotient of organized crime. A new comedy on the perils of witness protection, "My Blue Heaven," was partially filmed in San Diego.

A 1989 Marshals Service report called the program "the government's most effective way to obtain testimony against accused drug dealers, major organized crime members and terrorists." But law enforcement officials familiar with the program say despite its many successes it has been burdened for years with more cases that it can adequately handle, adding 200 witnesses a year, or four times what it was originally designed for.

In a cracked and strained voice weakened by a long history of heart problems, Martin said in an interview shortly before his death at age 69 that he wished there could be a better way to ease the post-trial lives of people who risk a great deal, often to the surprise of cynical investigators, for old-fashioned ideals like patriotism and law.

"I think it's the most wonderful country in the world," said Martin, a friendly, wise-cracking man who sounded very much like the millionaire insurance agent he once was. "Unfortunately, many of the people who work for the government should not be there."

There was no question of Martin's long association with organized crime. He made a fortune selling policies to mob-controlled businesses he knew would never put in a claim. "If someone fell off a bar stool in a bar," he said, "they'd settle the claim right there. They wrote a check or gave the guy cash and told him to take a walk."

But there was also no question that when law enforcement friends at the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the New York Police Department asked him to help uncover the secrets of some of the most dangerous men in the country, he did not hesitate.

"No way it could have been done without him," said former New York police lieutenant David Durk, who worked closely with Martin in the early 1970s. "What drove the prosecutors crazy was that he brought them more information than they ever wanted."

As the investigation focused on local government officials and on union figures like Provenzano, once a close associate of Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa, Martin's brash self-confidence and encyclopedic grasp of names and numbers became irresistible. In a private ceremony at a government safe house, he was given federal and city awards for his work.

Durk said he was fascinated by the undercover agent's startling mix of cynical worldliness and love of country. "Here he was, this incredibly smart guy who could deal with the biggest sleazeballs in the world," Durk said, "but he was constantly talking about the United States."

In 1975, despite Martin's hours of testimony at four trials, the cases fell apart, the apparent result of mishandling by inexperienced prosecutors and enormous legal resources exploited by the well-financed defendants. Martin's outrage at this result did not endear him with some of his federal handlers. He and his family were sent to San Diego as promised, but the preparations seemed to him amateurish.

"My documentation was ridiculous," he said. His children were suddenly listed as his grandchildren. He lost his right to receive benefits for his past military service. When his daughter sought personal documents so she could qualify to teach, the process took years.

The government gave him no money, but he had plenty of his own and managed to create a thriving new insurance business until the day in 1981 when one of his employees, Andrew Powell, was arrested for the murder of La Jolla, Calif., attorney Richard Crake. Powell told police that Martin put him up to it.

When Martin sought advice, his former protectors in the federal government acted as if they had never heard of him. One law enforcement source familiar with the case said there were too many protected witnesses in San Diego to look after, and at the time of Martin's arrest too much unfavorable national publicity about the roughly 20 percent recidivism rate among protected witnesses, a rate the Marshals Service notes is less than half that for convicted felons.

The records in the Crake murder case fill several file drawers, and include one of the most unusual state Supreme Court rulings in California history, but there remains no clear explanation of the motives involved. Powell said Martin asked him to pressure Crake for a $100,000 debt from a real estate deal. Witnesses said Powell and Crake argued when Powell visited Crake's home. Powell struck Crake several times on the head with a gun and shot him in the arms, causing fatal injuries.

During the trial, Martin's attorney sought to prohibit any discussion of Martin's former life and tried to introduce evidence that Powell may have had drug dealings with Crake and lied when he said he got the gun from Martin.

The jury found Martin guilty of second-degree murder and related conspiracy charges, and he was sentenced to 16 years to life in prison. He remained in jail until 1986, when the state Supreme Court issued a blistering rebuke of the prosecution and ordered a new trial.

The high court said the district attorney's office presented false testimony and intimidated witnesses. It seemed particularly outraged by the arrest in a courtroom hallway, in front of other defense witnesses, of Stephen Aguilar, a car salesman who testified he loaned the .357-magnum murder weapon to Powell for $1,000. The prosecution never pursued the charge of accessory to a murder against Aguilar, but the Supreme Court quoted the finding of a special referee that the arrest was "blatantly intimidating," particularly since the prosecution threatened to do the same to another witness who would have corraborated Aguilar's story.

District Attorney Edwin Miller later defended his actions and called the ruling "flawed."

Martin filed a $6.75 million lawsuit against San Diego County, but said he was too sick to go through another murder trial. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter in exchange for no further jail time.

"My family knows I'm not guilty," he said. He wanted some peace, he said, during the time he had left. He said he didn't regret what he did for his country, but thought he might have been wrong to let his heart interfere with his business sense.

For anyone else embarking on similar adventures, he had some advice: "Whatever they promise you, get it in writing."