When John Alite married his wife Carol in 1989, the wedding took place on Valentine’s Day – not for the romantic associations, but as a mark of respect to his best man, whose birthday it was.
For Alite’s best man was the son of John Gotti, the American mobster and boss of New York’s Gambino crime family, which, for decades, has made unimaginable sums from loan sharking, gambling, extortion, and racketeering.
For 20 years from the early 1980s Alite worked for Gotti, amassing millions of dollars through racketeering. Alite has estimated that, as Gotti’s enforcer, he “shot between 30 and 40 guys, and stabbed or baseball-batted a hundred more”.
He first batted someone at 16 and committed his first murder at 19, when he shot a man twice in the back of the head. He has himself been stabbed, batted and hit by cars.
Today, though, it’s Alite who is in fear of his life, having turned informer and given evidence against the mobsters who once employed him.
Like others interviewed by Trevor McDonald for his two-part ITV documentary on the Mafia, Alite, now 52, cut a deal with the FBI in return for a reduced sentence, testifying against those he once worked for. He was facing life in prison on multiple counts of conspiracy to murder and racketeering.
Out of jail since 2012, he works in construction and has left behind what he always refers to as “the life”. Refusing to enter witness protection, he lives in his son’s apartment outside New York.
Nonetheless, any journalist wanting to interview him in connection with the documentary cannot simply be given his telephone number. Instead it means a visit to the production company’s offices in north London, where the call is placed by the documentary’s executive producer Stuart Cabb.
So when you’ve got a price on your head, why stick it above the parapet? “I wanted to do the programme to show that some of us do change,” says Alite, who was not paid to take part. “I’ve seen the programme and it shows what I was then and what I am now.”
His gravelly voice is straight out of The Sopranos, heavy with the accent of one born in the New York borough of Queens. And what emerges is his likeability, quite distinct from easy charm. As Cabb puts it, Alite is someone you would enjoy having dinner with.
Life is not easy for Alite now. He admits that he is an outcast from the life he was once prepared to die for.
“I wouldn’t go into witness protection because that’s just another extended jail,” he says. “I wanted to live my life on my terms. Knowing I could be killed any minute is normal. I’m used to it. It doesn’t affect the way I live.” Which is perhaps surprising, given there are still an estimated 7,000 members of the Mafia going about their business in New York.