Throwback: Tampa mob trial
Not so very long ago, Tampa was an underworld hub, a place where mobsters ran illegal gambling operations out of Ybor City coffee shops and killed the people who got in their way.
By CARRIE WEIMAR
Published October 16, 2006
TAMPA - Not so very long ago, Tampa was an underworld hub, a place where mobsters ran illegal gambling operations out of Ybor City coffee shops and killed the people who got in their way.
Those days are over, thanks largely to a crackdown by law enforcement in the 1970s and '80s. But experts say the Mafia never really left Tampa: It just changed form.
Starting today, four men alleged to be members of the Gambino crime family will go on trial in U.S. District Court in Tampa on charges of racketeering and extortion.
Prosecutors said the crew, headed by Ronald "Ronnie One Arm" Trucchio, committed a string of crimes from New York to Miami, including murder, robbery and extortion.
Trucchio, 55, and his band carved out a piece of Tampa's valet parking business and owned a company that parked cars at restaurants, hospitals and nude dance clubs, including Thee Doll House, court records show.
The stakes are high for the defendants, who face potential sentences of 20 years to life.
The trial will also offer a rare glimpse at a seamier side of Tampa.
"Organized crime is alive and well," said Ken Sanz, a special agent for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, who investigated the Mafia for more than 30 years. "It's probably not comparable to what it was in the '80s, the '70s or the '60s, but it's here."
For years, organized crime in Tampa was under the control of the Trafficante crime family. But the death of Santo Trafficante Jr. in 1987 brought an end to that era.
Now, mobile groups of crime associates called "crews" migrate to Florida and work independently, making payments to heads of families in New York or New Jersey.
In exchange, the remote operations are granted protection from the families against other organized crime factions, Sanz said.
"It became open territory," he said. "Any crime family can come down here now and do business."
That's how Trucchio and his crew operated, according to federal documents.
Trucchio, who got his colorful nickname because of a deformed arm, started as a soldier in the Gambino crime family, one of the notorious five families that control organized crime in New York.
He was later elevated to captain or "capo" and put in charge of several crews, court records state.
Trucchio, who lived in Queens, N.Y., tapped fellow New Yorker John Alite to head Trucchio's Tampa crew beginning about 1993, the records state.
By that point, Alite was already well-known to federal authorities. In 1989, he and another man were arrested with John A. Gotti, son of the late mob boss, all accused of beating up two men and a woman in a Long Island night club.
Alite, 43, was arrested in Brazil in November 2004. He is fighting extradition to the United States.
'All about the money'
In the mid '90s, Alite became involved in a valet company called A&A of Tampa, which later changed its name to Prestige Valet, according to Florida business records.
Prestige 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.
Valet parking would be an attractive business for the Mafia, said Scott Deitche, the author of Cigar City Mafia.
"It's all about the money," Deitche said.
"They're interested in any way they can make money and run money through. In valet parking, you're dealing with a whole lot of cash."
The president of Prestige Valet, Terry Scaglione, 40, was also charged in the case. His father, Nick Scaglione, was a member of the Trafficante crime family, Deitche said.
Terry Scaglione's attorney, Pat Doherty, said his client ran a legitimate business and didn't participate in any illegal activity.
The prosecution scored a major victory in August, when one of the defendants pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government.
In a plea agreement unsealed this month, Michael Malone admitted to robbing a Sears cashier of $20,000 in Vineland, N.J., robbing a man at Thee Doll House in Tampa and killing John Gebert in 1996.
Gebert, 30, was at Frankie & Johnnie's, a popular bar in Queens, when he was fatally shot in the back by two men in ski masks.
Members of the Tampa crew are also accused of roughing up a gambling ring in Port St. Lucie and extorting the owner of a rival valet business, Michael Malatin.
The other defendants are Kevin McMahon and Steven Catalano.
Recalling the old days
The last major Mafia trial in Tampa grew out of the Kings Court bottle club in Holiday, Deitche said. The phony club was set up in 1979 by an undercover FBI agent named Joe Pistone, who used the alias Donnie Brasco. Pistone went on to write a bestselling book about his experiences, which was made into a Hollywood movie.
It was a wild time to be in law enforcement, said Chris Hoyer, a Tampa attorney who served on the U.S. Department of Justice Organized Crime Strike Force and helped oversee the Kings Court sting.
Hoyer watched a high-ranking sheriff's official accept money from mobsters at the club. He also developed a grudging respect for Trafficante Jr., who developed a slew of ploys to thwart authorities.
"He used to drive 40 mph down the interstate," Hoyer said. "It's pretty hard to follow someone if he's only going 40."
The latest trial has also seen its share of drama, most of it surrounding Trucchio's lawyer, Joseph Corozzo Jr.
Corozzo, a New York City lawyer, is the son of Joseph "Jo Jo" Corozzo, believed to be the consigliere, or counselor, to the Gambinos.
The younger Corozzo is under investigation for potential involvement in witness tampering and obstruction of justice. Federal officials said the investigation could cause Corozzo to put his own welfare above his client's.
In May, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Trezevant requested a hearing to advise Trucchio of the potential conflict. Trucchio chose to remain with Corozzo, calling him his "most valuable asset."
But now the trial is scheduled to begin without Corozzo, who is stuck in a New York trial where he is representing another alleged Mafioso.
Instead, Trucchio will be represented by a last-minute replacement, Miami lawyer George Vila, who said he is completely unfamiliar with the case or organized crime in general.
Vila filed an emergency motion asking U.S. District Judge Susan Bucklew to delay the trial. But Bucklew refused, saying it would be unfair to the other defendants.
Security will be a concern during the trial, which could last up to two months.
In court documents filed last week, Trezevant refused a defense request to provide a list of witnesses and the order in which they will testify.
His reason: At least two potential witnesses were threatened in the past month.
Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Carrie Weimar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 226-3416.
[Last modified October 16, 2006, 00:10:53]
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