God and the Gangster
A once-made mob man shares his story with Salinas.
Thursday, March 10, 2011
Michael Franzese’s entry into mafia life was greased by his bloodline. His father, John “Sonny” Franzese, was an underboss of New York’s Colombo crime family, one of five ruling families. (The New Jersey branch of the family, says Franzese’s friend Joe Silva, is the basis for The Sopranos.)
“I grew up not liking law enforcement,” Franzese says. “I saw them as trying to hurt my father and my family.”
Although he admits that his father committed terrible crimes and parole violations that landed him in prison well into his 80s, Franzese excelled in school to the degree that he made pre-med at Hofstra University. But in 1970, his father was convicted and sentenced to 50 years on charges of multiple armed robberies, which Franzese says were false. He went to his father in Leavenworth Prison with a plan to drop out of school and get him out.
“He said, ‘If you’re going to be on the streets, I want you to be on the streets the right way,’” Franzese told a TV reporter. “That’s how it started for me.”
The Cosa Nostra “family” brought him in. Soon he was loan-sharking. But that was loose change compared to the next racket – gasoline.
“I devised a scheme to collect tax, from my 18 companies, 30-40 cents a gallon, and not pay it [to the government]. We were providing about 600 million gallons of gas a month.”
That translated to between $6 and $8 million for the family. A week. His bosses were rather pleased.
“In 1975 [the height of the the oil crisis],” he says, “I was called into a room and I got made.”
Some had been waiting 25 years for the blood ceremony, which would give Franzese the name of his second book, Blood Covenant (his first: Quitting the Mob). His life, at 24, escalated.
“I had a Lear jet, a Bell helicopter, homes in Florida, New York, L.A.,” he says. “I built a 7,500 square foot house with a racquet ball court. I had a Chevrolet and Mazda agency, a leasing company, a film production company.”
In a TV report, Tom Brokaw called him, during this period, “handsome and living high, as rich as royalty; a prince of the mafia.” But the kingdom was brittle.
“I became the target,” he says. “I went to trial five times.”
Rudolph Guiliani was his main nemesis. “‘I’m going to give you 100 years,’” Franzese says the former prosector told him. “Luckily I beat that charge.”
In 1984 he met (and soon married) Camille Garcia, a California dancer on the set of a movie he was financing.
She was naive about his business and associates, but that changed quickly. “I had just beaten the case from Guilliani, but they came after me again and I took a plea,” Franzese says. “A 10-year sentence, $10 million restitution, $5 million fine.”
He went to jail for 13 months. When he got out, he violated his own parole and went back in for “29 months and seven days in the hole.” He emerged, with nothing, save the conviction to give his “life to the Lord.”
“I spent 17 years in ‘the life,’” Franzese says. “The night of surrender [to the Lord] was Nov. 13, 1991. I got stripped of everything. My bank accounts, the cars, my house. [It was] the first time in my life I ever experienced hopelessness. Everyone – the government, my wife, my father, the guys on streets, my kids – was mad at me. I said, ‘Lord, I need help. ’Cuz I don’t know how to deal with this.’”
Since then, Franzese has become a model for the redemptive power of God: He made a permanent break from the Family in 1993; two years later he says the FBI invited him to speak to collegiate athletes about the temptations and risks of gambling. “Mike’s talked with NHL, NBA, Major League Baseball players,” Silva says. “He’s like a magnet.”
Now we has widened his audience; he speaks twice at Salinas’ First Presbyterian Church Sunday, March 13. He’ll lead with his powerful story.
“God is brilliant: People are intrigued by the mob,” he says. “But no matter what you’ve done, God extends his grace to everybody. I plant the seed in the heart and the Lord waters it.”
He’s on the road so often he didn’t know much about his engagement in Salinas. But when told of Salinas’ Mexican and Mexican-American gang problems, he says, “I spent eight years in prison on the West Coast and met those young men. I love talking to them. My wife is Mexican so I know the culture. I hope we can fill the church with them.”
When asked where he thinks he might be today if he had attended medical school, he says, “I can’t even think of how… It’s such a distance.
“I don’t know how this is going to end,” he says. “But God has a plan.”
MICHAEL FRANZESE speaks 9am and 10:45am Sunday, March 13, at First Presbyterian Church, 1044 S. Main St., Salinas. Free. 422-7811, www.michaelfranzese.com.