TAMPA — Sometime around 1989, federal prosecutors say, the late "Dapper Don" John Gotti got a request from his son: How about expanding the Gambino crime family into Tampa?
John Gotti Jr. knew of a way in through a local valet parking business, a prosecutor said Thursday at a court hearing about whether the case should go to trial in Tampa or New York.
Gotti, 44, of Oyster Bay, N.Y., faces federal charges in Tampa of racketeering and murder related to three killings in New York more than 10 years ago. In federal custody since his Aug. 5 arrest, Gotti sat quietly in court next to his attorneys. He's being held at the Pinellas County jail.
Defense attorney Charles Carnesi wants the trial moved to New York, estimating it would cost an additional $200,000 to defend the case in Tampa. He said changing the venue would make it easier to secure defense witnesses and review evidence, which mostly relates to New York-area crimes.
"We're not concerned about a trial. We're well aware of the strength of his defense," Carnesi said in court. "We know how to fight this case, judge. We just need the tools and resources."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Trezevant said the government has concerns about possible witness tampering if the trial takes place in New York. He also argued the crimes charged have a Tampa Bay connection and said the indictment grew from an FBI investigation originating in Clearwater.
The venue hearing offered a glimpse into the government's case, as Trezevant described Gotti's interest in Tampa.
"The defense has gone a long way to suggest directly that this case has been filed here as some kind of a tactical move and to prosecute him in some foreign land. That is not the case," Trezevant said. "This case is here because this is where Mr. Gotti elected to plant a Gambino crime family flag."
Trezevant said Gotti Jr.'s friend John Alite had gone to school at the University of Tampa, and Alite's college roommate, Tim Donovan, had become a successful valet parking owner in Tampa. Alite saw that as an opportunity to expand the New York mob's interests into Florida, with Tampa as its base, Trezevant said.
Alite had first sought approval from Gotti Jr., the prosecutor told U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday, and Gotti turned to his father, the late John Gotti Sr., for permission.
Prosecutors plan to call witnesses who had dinner with Gotti Jr. in Tampa, placing him here and showing he was actively involved in expanding in the area, Trezevant said.
The defense has accused the prosecution of venue shopping and bringing the charges in Tampa to improve chances of conviction. In 2005 and 2006, three Manhattan trials for Gotti Jr. on racketeering charges ended in hung juries and mistrials.
Characterizing the government's case against Gotti as "serial prosecutions," Merryday held up the New York indictment in one hand and the Florida indictment in the other, then declared them 95 percent identical. The judge said everything in one indictment could have been charged in the other.
Trezevant responded, "If the defendant doesn't want to be prosecuted in different jurisdictions, he shouldn't go into different jurisdictions and commit crimes."
Merryday plans to issue a written ruling on the defense motion to move the trial. He said he must decide where to draw the line in allowing the government to change cities on a prosecution.
"This is not a case of tactical maneuvers," Trezevant told the judge. "This is not the government meeting in a dark room in Washington saying, 'How are we going to deal with John A. Gotti?' That is not the case."
Kevin Graham can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.