TAMPA — For four months, Tampa had him.
John Gotti Jr., son of Dapper Don, was set to stand trial at the federal courthouse downtown.
Tuesday, it all collapsed. U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday kicked a racketeering and murder case against Gotti back to his home turf of New York, where defense attorneys argued he could get a fairer shake.
"Welcome back, Gotti!" the New York Daily News immediately enthused.
The U.S. Attorney's Office indicted Gotti in Tampa after juries deadlocked three times during racketeering trials in Manhattan.
Prosecutors said the Tampa charges stemmed from Gotti's attempt to expand the Gambino crime family's reach into the bay area through a local valet parking business.
But defense attorneys called the latest case a tactical move by prosecutors, accusing them of venue shopping for a more conservative jury pool.
"We're extremely pleased that Judge Merryday has corrected the course of this case so that John can defend himself fully and properly, have access to his lawyers and the evidence that he needs," said Seth Ginsberg, one of Gotti's defense attorneys.
Ginsberg said that Gotti, 44, was "extremely happy" to hear the news. He has been in federal custody since his Aug. 5 arrest at his Oyster Bay, N.Y., home, and has been kept at the Pinellas County Jail since his arraignment Aug. 28.
U.S. Attorney A. Brian Albritton had no comment on whether it would prove harder to convict Gotti in New York. He said he hadn't yet reviewed the judge's ruling. He wouldn't say whether the government plans to appeal.
Thomas Ostrander, a Tampa Bay area lawyer familiar with the charges but not connected to the case, called the judge's ruling "a great victory for the defense."
"His chances on getting an acquittal have just improved 100 percent, because now he's going back to an area where the jurors have been desensitized to these types of cases," Ostrander said.
Charles Carnesi, another Gotti attorney, estimated it would cost at least $200,000 more to defend the case in Tampa. He said most witnesses and evidence in the case were in New York, where the bulk of the crimes charged in the Florida indictment allegedly took place.
It was unclear what effect, if any, Merryday's ruling could have on five other defendants — including James V. "Jimmy" Cadicamo of Tampa — who face similar racketeering charges in a separate local indictment based on the same investigation.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Trezevant fought for Gotti's case to remain here, saying it grew from the work of Clearwater FBI agents. Local authorities were merely going after a New York man who committed crimes in the bay area, Trezevant said.
At a court hearing last month, he said Gotti visited and showed interest in the Tampa area around 1989. Prosecutors intended to call witnesses who had dinner with Gotti at Tampa restaurants, establishing his presence here.
But Merryday said he saw little difference between the New York indictments and the one in Florida. He called them nearly identical.
"The present indictment poses the troubling question whether after three unsuccessful prosecutions in New York on RICO conspiracy … the United States can, so to speak, just pull up by the roots the indictment the United States cultivated for years in New York and summarily repot the whole operation in Florida, hoping for more favorable conditions and a more favorable result and dismissing as inconsequential the resulting expense and dislocation visited upon Gotti," Merryday wrote in a 19-page ruling.
"Of course, the United States in this instance accompanies this repotting by flavoring the allegations with the details of some events in Florida," the judge wrote. "But the RICO conspiracy charged in the Florida indictment is unmistakably the same RICO conspiracy charged in New York, the alleged local incidents notwithstanding."
Albritton said Trezevant will likely travel to New York to prosecute the case.
Michael Seigel, former first assistant U.S. attorney in Tampa and a University of Florida law professor, said Merryday's ruling was "extremely rare," but added that a judge has discretion on issues of venue.
"I'm confident that the prosecutors did not make a mistake in charging this case in the Middle District of Florida," Seigel said. "It's almost unheard of to take a case that is properly venued in one place and just use your discretionary authority and have it moved somewhere else."
Seigel said Merryday traded "some inconvenience for the defendants for tremendous inconvenience for the prosecution."
"It is a disadvantage, obviously, to the prosecution," Seigel said. "Tampa, overall, has more conservative law and order people than perhaps the Southern District of New York. The odds of getting a more favorable jury pool for the prosecution are higher here."
Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Kevin Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.