TAMPA — Sixteen years ago, "Sammy the Bull" Gravano sent shock waves through a New York courtroom when he testified against his mob boss, John Gotti Sr.
Now another mob insider may prove key to convicting Gotti's son on federal racketeering and murder charges that grew from a Clearwater FBI investigation.
When John E. Alite's confession in a racketeering conspiracy charge became public this week, it confirmed what some attorneys already suspected — that Alite had flipped and is likely helping the government build its case against John Gotti Jr.
Prosecutors won't reveal their witnesses, but three New York-area murders remain the common denominator between Alite, 46, and Gotti, 44.
As part of his plea, Alite admitted involvement in the murders, the same three that were included in an indictment unsealed in August against the younger Gotti.
Prosecutors have called Alite, a former University of Tampa student, the bridge between the New York mob and its expansion into the bay area.
"The fact that a reputed mobster flipped on a reputed crime family head … that's what it took for the government to take down Gotti's father," said Latour "LT" Lafferty, a former federal prosecutor who has followed the developments but has no ties to the case. "It's a significant event that the Gotti defense has to be concerned about."
Charles Carnesi, Gotti Jr.'s attorney, told the St. Petersburg Times he anticipated Alite's plea and wasn't sure it would affect their defense.
Following Gotti's arraignment in Tampa in August, his sister said that Alite distanced himself from her brother "a very long time ago." Victoria Gotti described Alite as "a very bad kid from the go."
"It took John a little longer than the rest of us to realize it," she said in August.
But prosecutors displayed remnants of the history between Alite and Gotti during a court hearing last month.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Trezevant offered a photograph of Alite, Gotti and Joseph "Cocaine" O'Kane, who was sentenced in 2002 to life in prison in another racketeering case. The picture was taken some time in the mid to late 1980s in South Florida, Trezevant said, and showed the men in their 20s, shirtless and posing.
Trezevant also showed Alite's 1989 New York marriage license, with Gotti Jr.'s signature as a witness.
"Alite is the smoking gun, but it's no big surprise," Lafferty said. "The minute they unsealed the indictment against Gotti and the other associates, everybody knew that somebody had flipped, and most people thought it was Alite, based on his circumstances."
Attorneys point to signs in Alite's case that led to the speculation he was cooperating with the government: Sealed documents filled his court file; his trial date was constantly pushed back indicating talks about a possible plea; and attorneys met less frequently with a judge to give updates on the case.
"Any time something is sealed, you have to assume somebody is cooperating," said Thomas Ostrander, who represented a co-defendant during a 2006 mob-related trial in Tampa.
Charges for that case were filed in 2004 against Alite, Ronnie "One Arm Trucchio" and four other men, accused of expanding the New York mob's reach into Tampa through the local valet parking business. While the other men stood trial in 2006, Alite fled the country. Authorities caught up with him in Brazil and extradited him to the United States.
Steve Cole, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, declined to comment Thursday on whether precautions were being taken to protect Alite as a potential witness.
"There's no way that a guy who is going to testify in all these mob trials is not risking his life by doing so," said George Tragos, a former federal prosecutor.
He called Alite a potential "star witness."
"It's going to be probably pretty devastating to the Gotti case," Tragos said. Jurors may "give the guy a lot of credit when he's willing to admit to three murders."
Ostrander said the government already has some "very credible witnesses" who testified for them at the 2006 Tampa trial about some of Gotti's activity.
"Alite is just the cherry on top of the sundae," Ostrander said.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Kevin Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.