Late last year, federal authorities indicted six alleged Gambino crime family members on charges that they broke laws from New York to Miami.
On top of robbery and racketeering allegations, the indictment accused the crew of carving out a small piece of Tampa's valet parking business. They used their reputation and powers of persuasion to win contracts and keep rival valet companies at bay, according to authorities.
Organized crime experts say it's a classic example of how the mob infiltrates legitimate businesses. Valet parking isn't as popular a target as, say, the gambling or garbage hauling industries, but it has many of the characteristics the Mafia likes.
"It's easy to get into valet. It's tied to other Mafia-influenced businesses like restaurants and strip clubs, and it's cash heavy," said mob expert Howard Abadinsky, a criminology professor at St. Johns University. "Traditionally, those are great temptations for the mob."
The men pulled off a range of crimes from drug trafficking to armed home invasions, mostly in New York, New Jersey and southern Florida from 1986 until last year, according to the indictment unsealed Nov. 30.
The crew reported to New York resident Ronald Trucchio, known as "One-Arm Ronnie," a "capo" or boss in the Gambino crime family, authorities say. Trucchio faces a separate indictment in South Florida that links him to a $2-million armored car heist and a $400,000 bank robbery. His crews are also suspected in several killings.
John Alite was Trucchio's top man in the crew, authorities say. He used his position to "instill fear in others," the indictment states.
Alite and Terry Scaglione, also a defendant in the indictment, were officials with A&A of Tampa, which later changed its name to Prestige Valet, according to Florida business records.
Prestige has had contracts with St. Joseph's Hospital and the shops in Channelside, according to court documents. The company also parked cars at restaurants and nude dance clubs, including Thee Doll House.
The mob often targets industries that have ties to industries it already influences, experts say. Traditionally, the mob has had ties to the restaurant and club scene, making valet parking a natural extension.
It takes little money to start a valet parking company. It's also a highly competitive business, in which companies frequently try to outbid one another for contracts.
The Mafia, though, can use its considerable influence and persuasive powers to keep competitors out of the market. After that, they can pressure the restaurants and strip clubs to hire their company.
"The mob has the muscle and reputation to police their turf," Abadinsky said. "They have the ability to restrain competition."
And they can pull it off with little or no violence, experts say. Members of a well-known family like the Gambinos have such an established reputation that everyone knows not to mess with them, said Ron Goldstock, former director of the New York State Organized Crime Task Force.
"They step in and say "We're taking over' and no one fights them on it," Goldstock said. "It's a very efficient way of getting into a business."
Valet parking offers other advantages to the Mafia. The business provides legitimate jobs for mob associates, especially those on probation or who have to stay out of trouble for a while. And some crime rings duplicate keys and later steal the cars or break into homes. The indictment does not accuse Alite and Scaglione of such a scheme.
Valet parking also is a cash business, which can help organized crime hide or launder money earned from its criminal activities.
"There's virtually no way of knowing how much money is being brought in," said Scott Deitche, author of Cigar City Mafia, a book about Tampa's mob history.
Valet parking does have drawbacks as a mob business, Abadinsky said. It takes dozens of contracts to make money. And the more business owners a mob crew has to strong-arm, the more risk of someone turning them in.
"I would suspect that it's the type of scheme run by lower level members of the Mafia," he said. "The higher-ups wouldn't want to get their hands directly dirtied by it."
Trucchio, the highest ranking Mafia member among the six defendants in the indictment, did not appear to have a hands-on role with Prestige, according to court documents.
Scaglione, though, is a relative unknown, aside from being the grandson of Nick Scaglione, a member of the Trafficante crime family in the 1950s and 1960s. Alite, also known as John Alletto, has a criminal past but is not considered a high level Mafia figure, experts say.
Alite is best known for his run-ins with the law, including an arrest in 1989 with "Dapper Don" John Gotti's son for fighting outside a Long Island nightclub. He was in the news again in 2001 when he allegedly threated to "crack" a lawyer in front of onlooking employees. In 2002, he received three months' probation for helping a New York mobster smuggle sperm to his wife from inside Allenwood Federal Prison.
Locally, Alite's name arose in a lawsuit Prestige officials filed in 2001 that accused former employee Michael Malatin of stealing their business plan and clients. In his deposition taken June 20, 2003, Malatin said Alite threatened him during a telephone conservation:
Lawyer: What did you talk about?
Malatin: He did most of the talking, and it was threatening.
L: What did he say?
M: Well, he said that he would _ that he wanted to kill me, and that he was going to rape (my wife) and slit her throat.
L: What was that about?
M: I think you may want to ask him that.
Later in the deposition, Prestige's lawyer asked Malatin about his role in the ongoing investigation into Prestige's activities. Malatin admitted taping conversations with Alite at the behest of the FBI.
Federal prosecutor Jay Trezevant heard about the questioning and complained to the judge presiding over the civil case that Prestige officials were using the lawsuit as a "thinly veiled" attempt to pry into the ongoing criminal case. The judge granted a temporary protective order barring Prestige's lawyers from any further attempts to unearth what the investigators had discovered.
Alite was in Brazil when authorities arrested him in November. He is expected to be extradited to Tampa to face the charges.
Times staff writer Jeff Testerman contributed to this report. Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or brinksptimes.com.