HE CALLED ME on the phone and said he had a story to tell. He wanted to know if I’d be interested in writing it. This was almost two years ago.

I jumped at the chance.

That’s how I first met John Alite.

Here’s what I knew at the time: Alite was a New York hit man and enforcer for the Gambino crime family headed at first by John J. Gotti and later by his son, John A. “Junior” Gotti. Alite had grown up in Queens, the grandson of Albanian immigrants. He had a reputation for violence that was off the charts. And he had ultimately cut a deal with the government and became a cooperating witness.

What’s more, in the mid to late 1990s he had spent considerable time in South Jersey and Philadelphia, establishing a beachhead in the underworld there. Then he had gone on the run, traveling in and out of more than a dozen countries before settling in Brazil. At first it was Goodfellas meets “The Girl from Ipanema.” Then it soured. What followed were two years in hellish Brazilian prisons, extradition to the U.S. to face racketeering-murder charges and finally the decision to cooperate and testify for the government.

But there was more. Much more. Enough, in fact, to fill more than 300 pages in Gotti’s Rules: The Story of John Alite, Junior Gotti and the Demise of the American Mafia. The book came out last month from Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.

It’s been an interesting experience.

Gottis Rules_smGotti Jr. is not a big fan. In fact, he rushed a self-published book to the Internet in an attempt to undermine the book I did about Alite. There’s a backstory there that paints the publishing business as nearly as treacherous and cutthroat as the underworld where Alite and Gotti Jr. once flourished, but that’s a story for another day.

Alite came to me with a typed manuscript of more than 300 pages that he and another inmate had put together while they were cellmates in a federal prison. The stories were great. The writing not so good. I used the manuscript as a guide for the next year. During that time, Alite and I met dozens of times at the Marlton Diner on Route 70. Over breakfast or coffee we talked about his life, about the story he wanted to tell and about why he wanted it told. As the project progressed, I would show him sample chapters.

I’ve gotten to know a lot of wiseguys over the years. John Alite is one of the most interesting and, other than Ron Previte, probably the one for whom I have the most empathy. He’d be the first to admit that he was a bad guy and that many of the things he did were despicable. He never tried to hide any of that or to explain it away. That’s one of the things he and Previte had in common. Neither tried to sugarcoat what they had done.

But there was another side to Alite that came out as we got to know one another. Amidst the stories of murder and mayhem, there was a sincerity, an honesty. Still solidly built and heavily tattooed, Alite would sit at a table in the Marlton Diner and go on in great detail about what he had done. But he would always look me square in the eye as he told the story, never shying away from the often less-than-flattering self-portrait.

I’ve written this before, but one of the fascinating things about journalism is dealing with the question that may not have a clear answer. Everyone knows about the four Ws they teach in journalism school—who, what, where and when. Those are the anchors on which news stories are built. But the most interesting question is the fifth W—WHY? I don’t pretend to know the full answer to why Alite did what he did or why he opted to open himself up to me and try to explain it. I do know his story is compelling, and in many ways unlike any other I have ever written.

Over the months we worked the project, we spoke on the phone, via text and through emails, sometimes on a daily basis. The book manuscript, based in part on interviews with John and in part on research, documentation and other interviews, was completed in June. In November, as galleys were being prepared for a final print run, John said he wanted out of the project, that he didn’t want the book to be published.

His sons, aged eighteen and twenty-two, had been getting threatening messages on Twitter and Facebook. One night, Alite said, guys wearing masks grabbed his youngest son, Matt, put a gun to his head and told him he’d be killed if his father went forward with the story.

That’s when Alite sent me a text message saying that as much as he wanted to see the book in print, he wasn’t going to put his son’s life in jeopardy.

“I’m sorry,” he wrote in a message sent at midnight on the fourth of November. “We put a lot of time and effort into this, but it has to stop. A gun was put to my son’s head tonight by guys with masks.”

I tried to convince him that the only way to protect his sons was by going public with the threats and with the book.

“You back down now and three months from now it will be something else,” I wrote.

At first, Alite didn’t see it that way. As a father I can understand his anguish.

As a reporter who has written about the mob for thirty years, I’m sickened by what happened. It used to be understood in the underworld that family members who weren’t part of the life would not be targeted. That’s when the term “men of honor” still had some meaning.

The cowards who put a gun to Matt Alite’s head wouldn’t understand that.

John Alite’s sons have nothing to do with the underworld and nothing to do with the writing of Gotti’s Rules. They want to be left alone. They have opted not to report the threats. I think they’re wrong, but that’s their choice.

As this is being written, John Alite is once again supporting the book. But he said he wants to make it clear that this is his story, and that no one in his family is responsible for anything that he has done or said.

I don’t know who threatened John Alite’s sons because they hid behind masks and behind the anonymity of the social network. That’s the difference between them and John Alite. He stands up and tells you to your face what he thinks.

This book is one example.

Alite’s life is a story of greed, treachery and brutality. It puts the lie to the noble Godfather myth that many Americans have embraced and that the Gotti family has tried to perpetuate.

It is a myth at odds with men wearing masks and threatening innocent people.