Prosecutors say the triggerman in the 2001 murder of South Florida business tycoon Gus Boulis was a New York mobster named John Gurino, who was shot dead two years later by a deli owner west of Boca Raton.

Gurino didn't live long enough to be charged with Boulis' slaying, and prosecutors now want the man who killed Gurino — Ralph Liotta — to testify about what they say is important evidence against the three surviving men accused of murdering Boulis.

Broward prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Anthony "Little Tony" Ferrari, James "Pudgy" Fiorillo, and Anthony "Big Tony" Moscatiello. In 2005, the three men were charged with orchestrating the murder and are tentatively expected to go to trial later this year.

Liotta is serving a 12-year prison sentence for manslaughter after admitting he killed Gurino, though he said he acted in self-defense after Gurino tried to attack him. Liotta owed Gurino money, and the defense said Gurino was using strong-arm tactics to try to take over Liotta's deli and home.

Prosecutors Brian Cavanagh and Gregg Rossman say Liotta's testimony has become "a crucial lynchpin" in the case, which is heavily based on circumstantial evidence. In 2006, Liotta told police that Gurino made self-incriminating statements to him during a 2003 car ride when Gurino and another man were on their way to intimidate another loan recipient.

According to Liotta, Gurino said "Oh I need some throwaways [guns] … 'cause this one is … is this the one I popped … that little f---er in Fort Lauderdale?" a reference prosecutors say was to Boulis.

Liotta's testimony ties in with statements from other likely witnesses in the case, including Adam Kidan, a New Yorker who bought Boulis' SunCruz Casino gambling ships. Kidan got his prison sentence for a related fraud case cut in half for his help in the murder case.

Kidan told police that shortly after Liotta killed Gurino, Moscatiello and Ferrari told Kidan "that 'the shooter' — with whom Moscatiello and Ferrari had conspired to kill Gus Boulis — was now dead and that he was 'killed by a deli-owner in Boca,' " prosecutors wrote.

Prosecutors have suggested Moscatiello, Ferrari and Fiorillo killed Boulis to "encourage" Kidan to keep paying protection money.

While prosecutors want Liotta to testify in the three defendants' trial, the defense attorneys have different views about it.

H. Dohn Williams, Fiorillo's lawyer, thinks the testimony helps his client because it does nothing to tie him to the crime.

In court records, Williams emphasized that Gurino bragged to Liotta about his ties to organized crime figures in New York and his association with the Gotti family and mobsters in Howard Beach, where Moscatiello and Gurino lived.

Another likely witness in the case, is Peter Zuccaro, a self-described Gambino family associate turned government informant. He is serving time in prison in New York in between testifying against alleged mobsters.

Zuccaro told investigators that Moscatiello tried to recruit him to murder Boulis but that he recommended Gurino for the job, Williams wrote. Shortly after Boulis was gunned down as he drove along a downtown Fort Lauderdale street, Gurino sent Zuccaro a newspaper article about the Feb. 6, 2001, murder, Williams said.

Another alleged organized crime figure, Joseph Marley, also identified Gurino as the killer and said he'd known him for 20 years, Williams wrote: "[Gurino] told me who gave him the hit. If I say his name I would be killed, as he is [an] earner in the Gambino crime family."

"So three men, Liotta, Marley and Zuccaro, who do not know each other, say that Gurino admitted killing Boulis. Kidan says Fiorillo's co-defendants told him Boulis' killer is dead, and Gurino is dead," Williams wrote.

If Liotta is allowed to testify, it could complicate the case a little more.

Liotta's trial attorney was Dave Bogenschutz, who now represents Moscatiello in the Boulis murder case and that would create a potential conflict of interest. The judge and attorneys suggested there are a few possible ways around that problem — Liotta and Moscatiello could both agree to give up their rights regarding the conflict of interest, Bogenschutz could withdraw from the case or another lawyer could join Moscatiello's defense to handle Liotta's testimony.

Another possibility is that the judge could decide Liotta is so important to Fiorillo's defense that Fiorillo could be tried separately from the other co-defendants. For now, the three accused men are expected to go on trial together.

Circuit Judge Ilona M. Holmes on Friday ordered that Liotta be moved to the Broward County jails by July 28 so she can have him appear in court, explain to him the possible conflict of interest and verify that he is willing to testify before she makes any further rulings on the matter.

Ferrari and Fiorillo are in jail awaiting trial, Moscatiello is under house arrest.

pmcmahon@tribune.com or 954-356-4533