Secrets of a mob hit man revealed in George Anastasia's new book

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

Allen Iverson, Rabbi Neulander and Joey Merlino all make appearances in this excerpt about John Alite's dealings in Philly.


George Anastasia at the Marlton Diner
Maria Pouchnikova

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 14 of Gotti's Rules.

In the mid-1990s, John Alite also set up shop in the Philadelphia–South Jersey area, where he already had two homes. His common-law wife, Claudia, had moved into a house he purchased in a residential neighborhood in Cherry Hill. Alite also spent time in one of the three homes located on the 15-acre tract he owned in nearby Voorhees Township. Alite had turned the grounds into an athletic facility of sorts with an outdoor gym and boxing ring equipped to train fighters.

Boxing remained a big part of his life. He never hesitated to get in the ring. And as he got older he came to realize that his fascination with the sport wasn't just about winning. A good fighter not only knew how to throw a punch, but how to take one. Alite brought that same attitude to the streets. You might knock him down, but unless you knocked him out, he was getting back up. And if he did get back up, you had a problem.

Junior Gotti wasn't big enough, tough enough or smart enough to knock him down.

A few years after establishing a base in the Philadelphia suburbs, Alite was moving easily in and around the local underworld. He knew some members and associates of the Philadelphia crime family and they, in turn, introduced him to others. He quietly went about his business, never calling attention to himself or boasting about his New York connections.

Guys who needed to know found out quickly enough. For most other people, it didn't matter. Who he was was not the issue. What he was doing was what mattered. ...

Philadelphia presented lots of opportunities for Alite once he started to look around. In the mid-1990s, bars and restaurants were sprouting up along the Delaware Avenue riverfront from Center City to South Philadelphia. The popular nightspots attracted the young and the wealthy from both the city and the suburbs. There also were more than a few wiseguys and wannabes and the beautiful young women who chased after them. Parking was always a problem and each establishment had a valet service.

Alite, who already had a big valet business in Tampa, simply muscled his way in, using threats and beatings when necessary, to push out any competitors. In less than a year he had control of the valet parking at about two dozen spots along Delaware Avenue, a few in South Jersey and a few more in Atlantic City. He even had a few locations in upscale shopping centers. ... It was a cash business and, other than paying for insurance, there was very little overhead.

Alite charged the businesses a flat fee for the valet service, arranged off-site parking and set up two or three kids at each site to park the cars. Their biggest income came from the tips.

Several of the clubs along Delaware Avenue, places like Rock Lobster, the Eighth Floor, Egypt, and Katmandu, also attracted local celebrities and the city's sports stars. One night, Alite was checking on his businesses when he saw a Bentley parked in a VIP spot next to the entrance at one of the clubs. It was standard for whoever parked in that spot to put $20 in the tip bucket. All the tips went to the guys Alite hired to park and watch the cars. This night, the tip bucket was empty. Alite asked who owned the Bentley. One of the valet workers told him it belonged to Allen Iverson, the basketball star. Alite went in the club and found him. "Move your car," he said. Iverson was taken aback. "What?"

"Either move your car or put $50 in the bucket," Alite said. "Usually it's $20, but for you now it's fifty."

Alite said Iverson tried to play the celebrity card, asking him if he knew who he was.

"I know who you are," Alite said he replied. "I don't give a fuck. You're too cheap to tip. Move your car."

Iverson said he was a friend of the owner of the club and that his presence generated business. Alite said that didn't do him or the kids parking cars any good. Iverson walked away, but Alite later found out he had asked the owner who Alite was.

"He came out after that and put money in the bucket," Alite said. "He apologized. Said no hard feelings. Keyshawn Johnson [a star wide receiver for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers] was the same way down in Tampa. Never tipped. Warren Sapp [an All-Pro defensive tackle for the Buccaneers], on the other hand, was generous with everybody. Maybe that's why he ended up bankrupt."

Valet parking became a legitimate source of income. It was a way for Alite to launder some of the cash that was flowing in from his drug dealing, gambling and loansharking operations. And it was there for the taking.

"It was wide open and I just moved in," he said. "I couldn't believe the local guys hadn't gotten into this."

At the time Alite started making his moves in the Philadelphia area, the local mob was in turmoil. Little Nicky Scarfo's bloody reign as mob boss had ended with his arrest and conviction on racketeering charges in 1988. He was succeeded by John Stanfa, a Sicilian-born Mafioso with ties to the old leadership of the Gambino family. Stanfa was banging heads with the sons, nephews and cousins of members of the jailed Scarfo crew. The young group was headed by Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino, whose father had been Scarfo's underboss. The Stanfa and Merlino factions were busy cruising the streets and shooting at one another. They didn't have the time or the inclination to go after the valet parking businesses that Alite had targeted.

There was one incident involving a guy who claimed to be Stanfa's nephew. He slapped around one of the valet attendants working for Alite at a Delaware Avenue nightclub. Alite got a phone call from the panicked attendant, who said these guys were trying to take over.

"I'll be right there," Alite said. He got a friend to drive him over to the club. "I was wearing a leather coat and I had an Uzi slung over my shoulder under the coat," he said. "This guy who claimed to be Stanfa's nephew, I'm not even sure if he was, wasn't around, but one of his associates was still here. They were in the valet business at the time. I showed him the gun and said I was taking over their business, not the other way around."

Alite ended up with four more spots. He saw it as simply a business opportunity, part of his foray into a new and economically fertile area. He was very comfortable moving around on the fringes of the volatile Philadelphia underworld.

He and Junior Gotti had met Scarfo in Atlantic City in the early 1980s before the mob boss went to jail. He knew of Merlino and some of the younger guys around him. He also had a business connection with a second group of renegade gangsters led by a kid named Louie Turra. Turra was like Merlino, a thirtysomething high-profile gangster, a John Gotti wannabe, a celebrity wiseguy but without the New York stage to play on. Turra was in the drug business. One of his suppliers was Keith Pellegrino, who worked for Alite.

"I tried to stay low-key," Alite said. "I didn't need a PA system to let people know who I was. But word got around. I'd say hello to guys, but not much more. I didn't really need to get involved with any of them. I was making plenty of money on my own."

But that didn't stop Louie Turra from trying to hire him as a hit man.

"I hardly know these guys, right?" Alite said. "They've got this Christmas tree lot on Oregon Avenue and Pellegrino takes me there one day to meet with Louie Turra."

Turra's father, Anthony, and his uncle Rocco, a legendary South Philadelphia tough guy, were in the produce business and during the holiday season they also had a lot from which they sold trees. It was there that Turra asked Alite if he would be willing to kill Joey Merlino.

"First, I don't want to get involved in their problems," he said. "Second, they hardly know me and they're asking me to kill somebody. I figure I'm not the first one they've asked. I tell them, 'Look, you got a problem with this guy, don't go after him right away. Make up, get him to relax, set him up. That's the way we do it in New York.' They didn't want to hear that.

They were crazy. I stayed away from them for that reason. If something happened to Merlino, everybody would know it was them. Louie Turra couldn't keep his mouth shut.

"I listened, but there was no way I was going to get involved. I thought these guys were all a little wild."

Coming from someone like Alite, that assessment said all you needed to know about the South Philadelphia underworld circa 1994. Turra was moving marijuana, cocaine and heroin and was also involved in sports betting. Merlino and members of his branch of the mob were asking Turra to pay a street tax, the underworld price for doing business. Turra refused to pay. Or, as his uncle Rocco later explained, "Who was Merlino that we should pay him? If he wants money, let him go out and steal it."

Louie Turra was badly beaten in an after-hours club by members of Merlino's crew. He was humiliated. During the assault, Merlino's henchmen also took his Rolex watch. But Turra still refused to pay. Instead he intensified his efforts to have Merlino killed. Alite heard about some of the plots, which just reinforced his perception of the Turra crew. They were cowboys, he said.

The Turras and nearly a dozen associates would later be indicted on racketeering charges that included drug dealing, murder and attempted murder. The indictment listed a series of plots to kill Merlino, plots that revolved around hand grenades, machine guns and even, at one point, a bow and arrow. Most of the defendants in that case were convicted.

The three Turras each found a different way out. Rocco, to the surprise of almost everyone in South Philadelphia, became a government witness. He had had enough of the senseless violence, he said. Louie committed suicide by hanging himself in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan while awaiting the start of trial. And Anthony, Louie's father, was shot and killed one morning in front of his home as he was on his way to court. Members of the Merlino mob have long been suspected, but never convicted, of that murder.

Alite's name also surfaced in another notorious "hit" that generated intense media attention at the time. The wife of a prominent Cherry Hill rabbi was killed in her home, bludgeoned to death by an intruder. The murder of Carol Neulander occurred on Nov. 1, 1994. Over the next four years it would be the focus of an intense investigation by the Camden County Prosecutor's Office. At one point word leaked out that investigators had questioned Alite, described as a notorious "mob hit man" then living in Cherry Hill.

"I remember driving home one day with Claudia," Alite said. "She was living in the house on Brick Road. When we pulled up, there were two guys in suits and ties, a white guy and a black guy, waiting at the door."

Alite still laughs when he recounts the story.

"Oh look, Jehovah's Witnesses," Claudia said when she spotted the men.

"That's how naïve she was," Alite said. "I knew right away they were detectives. I told them to come in. They indicated that they didn't think I had anything to do with it, but said they had to question me. I didn't realize it, but sometimes when I went jogging, I would jog past the Neulander house, the house where she was killed. She owned a cake shop and I used to stop in there sometimes. And I used to work out and play racquetball at the same gym where the rabbi worked out. I might have even played a game or two of racquetball with him. I don't remember."

Alite said he was open and honest with the detectives, telling them frankly that he was making too much money on his own to hire out as an assassin. What's more, he said, he would never kill a woman.

"I told them it was either some junkie or it was the husband," Alite said.

Alite was right. It was the rabbi. Fred Neulander was arrested in September 1998 and charged with hiring two men to kill his wife. Both hit men, one a recovering alcoholic whom the rabbi had befriended and was counseling, confessed and cooperated with authorities. They testified at two trials. The first ended with a hung jury, the second with Fred Neulander's conviction for first-degree murder. Neulander is currently serving a life term.

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