TAMPA — After failing three times to convict John "Junior" Gotti, federal prosecutors armed themselves for a fourth trial with a new star witness who pinned multiple murders on the mob boss he once considered his best friend.
But John Alite, a former University of Tampa student and admitted murderer, seems to have done more to hurt the prosecution than help it. On Tuesday, a judge once again declared a mistrial in Gotti's racketeering and murder conspiracy case, and jurors said they doubted Alite's credibility.
"There was a big question about him," juror Paul Peragine told the St. Petersburg Times.
With Gotti sent home on $2 million bail, the government must now decide whether to continue pursuing a case that originated from an FBI investigation in Clearwater and was transferred from federal court in Tampa to New York at the defense's request.
The deadlocked jury — the fourth in five years — agreed on one point: Don't bother.
Things might have ended differently had Alite been the government's only witness, said Peragine, a 56-year-old real estate attorney.
During Alite's seven days on the stand, "he came across very believable, actually," Peragine said. "He looked all the jurors in the eye, almost becoming like our friend, sort of like we were in a living room chatting with him."
According to news accounts, Alite tied Gotti to a string of killings, including two drug-related murders in 1988 and 1991. He claimed Gotti once shot a man for mocking the size of his handgun.
As a top associate to Gotti from 1983 to 1994, he said he committed more than three-dozen shootings, beatings, burglaries, robberies and shakedowns on his friend's orders. Alite estimated that he and Gotti split more than $50 million in profits from the crimes.
"I did everything for him," Alite testified.
Their friendship is clearly over. During the trial, with the jury on a lunch break, Gotti shouted to Alite, "You're a punk! You're a dog! You're a dog! You always were a dog your whole life, you punk dog."
Peragine, the juror, said Alite couldn't speak to Gotti's claim that he quit the mob in 1999, a key aspect of his defense. And subsequent testimony contradicted the key witness' account.
Jurors also believed that he had an incentive to help get Gotti convicted. Last year, Alite pleaded guilty to a federal racketeering conspiracy charge in Tampa and faces life in prison.
"He had an agenda," Peragine said.
Prosecutors have called Alite the bridge between the New York mob and its attempts to expand into Tampa through bars, clubs and the valet parking business. He was accused of acting as the Tampa crew's street boss and running its everyday activities.
During Gotti's trials in 2005 and 2006, Alite sat in a Brazilian prison fighting extradition on the Tampa indictment. At the time, he said federal authorities were trying to pressure him into disclosing information about his childhood friend.
He flipped on Gotti last year, giving prosecutors perhaps their best hope at a conviction.
That is, until he actually started talking. Some jurors said Alite was the government's least credible witness.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Trezevant, who traveled from Tampa to New York to participate in the 11-week trial, was not made available for comment Wednesday.
A former organized crime prosecutor said turncoat witnesses regularly pose challenges in mob cases. It's nearly impossible to win a conviction without insiders, but they rarely have clean hands, said Michael Seigel, a criminal law professor at the University of Florida.
The best prosecutors can hope for is to have corroborating witnesses and evidence that back up the informant's story.
"If you don't have that, they're very hard to win," Seigel said.
Information from the Associated Press, New York Daily News, New York Times and Newsday was used in this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337.