By Rick Coates
Once you join an organized crime family like the Mafia or the Mob there
are typically only two ways out: death or the witness protection program.
One of the top mob bosses of the Columbo crime family, Michael Franzese,
found a third way: God. He will tell his story this Friday at 7 p.m. at
the City Opera House in Traverse City.
Since serving time in prison and walking away from his life in the mob,
Michael Franzese at the encouragement of the FBI and his wife, has spent
the last 15 years traveling the country as a motivational speaker.
Professional sports teams and colleges have him speak to athletes to warn
of the dangers of gambling. As a born again Christian, Franzese is asked
to speak at several church groups and services.
I am going to tell my story, its a story of a young man who had all the
trappings of the mob, I was bringing in nine million dollars a week. I had
my jets, a helicopter, homes in New York, Florida and California, and I
had sometimes close to 500 mob guys working for me, Franzese. My hope is
that at the end of me telling my story people will leave understanding the
Franzese was brought into the Colombo crime family as a result of his
father John Sonny Franzese who rose up to be the underboss (number two
guy) in the organization. The senior Franzese has been in and out of
prison and at the age of 93 is back in prison with eight more years on his
sentence (many expect that he will live to be free again) and remains the
underboss of the Colombo Crime Family.
I joined on Halloween night 1972; I was 21 at the time. I went into a
room in front of the boss, the underboss (his father was in prison and not
the underboss at the time) and few others. The boss slit my finger so
blood would drip on the floor; this is called a blood oath. He then put a
card of a patron saint of the Catholic Church into my hand and lit it. It
burned quickly, said Franzese. He told me that I was taking an oath to
this family and that if I would ever betray it I would die and go to hell
as quickly as that card burned up in my hands.
To become a made man in the mob you must work for the family outfit for
one year doing everything you are asked by your superiors no questions
asked, including murder.
I came in at a time when a lot of guys were joining; there were more guys
wanting in than guys the mob wanted killed so they never asked me, said
Franzese. I proved to them that I could make money, that I was a leader.
My skills were used in that way.
It is believed that during his 20-year run with the Mob, Fransese was the
highest-earning gangster since Al Capone.
Franzese built his empire on partnering with the Russian Mafia on an
illegal gas bootlegging scheme that allowed for him to bring in cheap
gasoline to the U.S. and keep the tax money as profit. Franzese took his
profits and started businesses in the music and movie industries. He also
created several gambling rackets where the crime family paid athletes to
At the height of his career Fortune Magazine listed him among the top 20
mob bosses in the country. During the 80s he had a big target on his back
and was indicted five times, including four times by then Federal Attorney
Rudy Giuliani, but was found not guilty in all instances.
Franzese was a regular on the nightly news and NBC anchor Tom Brokaw
dubbed him the Prince of the Mob. With all the power, money and escaping
conviction five times, a certain sense of invincibility came over him.
I was 31 and acquitted five times and really felt I could beat any charge
they would bring against me and since I was rising up the ranks and being
groomed to become the boss I did feel invincible, he said.
CATALYST FOR CHANGE
But all that began to change when Franzese met his future wife Camille
during the filming of a breakdance movie he produced in Florida.
This was back in 1984 and at first she didnt want anything to do with
me, but I can be quite convincing, said Franzese. Well, she lived in
California and was part of a very religious family, and when I went out
and met her family and saw how they lived it changed me. Suddenly all that
I had didnt seem to be anything close to what this family had. There is
no doubt that Camille was the catalyst to changing my life leading me away
from the mob to God.
Franzese decided that his love for his wife was stronger than what he had
in the mob and developed a plan to get out.
My plan was to take a plea bargain and do some jail time, pay some
restitution, get out and start my family on the west coast with Camille. I
figured if I didnt testify against anyone and I moved, they would forget
about me and I could start over.
He was given a 10-year sentence and fined $15 million in restitution.
Franzese was released on parole after five years. Now married and having
renounced his previous lifestyle, he was ready to start anew. However,
after 13 months out of prison, he was arrested again on a parole
Now the mob was worried that I would testify against them, so they,
including my father, had a hit put out on me. The Feds wanted me to
testify but I felt that it was not my responsibility to help them do their
job so I refused to help them, said Franzese. They sent me back to
prison but put me in the hole. I spent three years there only getting out
five times a week to walk the yard by myself. I was fortunate that a guard
handed me a Bible and I studied it every day; it is how I got through that
A NEW LIFE
Franzese was released in 1995 and started the Breaking Out Foundation, an
organization that aims to identify and assist talented youths who are
unable to realize their dreams due to circumstances beyond their control.
We focus on the sports and entertainment industries both of interest to
young people and both tough to get into and we help them, said Franzese.
I want to make it clear to young people that a life of crime is not going
to work. You are going to get caught eventually. Look at the recent bust
of over 120 guys, some who I use to work with -- there is a better way and
it took me half my life, finding God and a wife to learn that.
Franzese walks freely today, no longer worried about being killed by the
people he once led; he figures they know he wont become a witness and the
feds are making life so difficult for crime families today.
As for what he misses the most from his previous life:
You would think the obvious would be the money, the cars, the lifestyle.
Actually it was the camaraderie with the guys that I miss the most.
Michael Yuppie Don Franzese has written four books describing his life
in the mob. Currently there is a movie about his life titled Blood
Convenant in the works. In addition to his busy speaking and writing
schedule Franzese is working with A&E to develop a television series on
Michael Franzese will speak Fri., Feb. 25 at the City Opera House in TC.
Tickets are $7 in advance and $10 at the door, available at Borders Books,
WLJN and Espresso Bay Coffee (Hammond & Three Mile). (231) 632-6656.