A former Mafia boss chronicles his journey from mobster to Christian youth worker in a new book called Blood Covenant. The one-time captain in the Colombo crime family tells a chilling tale of survival and redemption.
As a young man, Michael Franzese became aware of the New York Mafia and his family's ties to it. Lurid news accounts and police stakeouts of his house made it clear that his father, Sonny Franzese, was more than a businessman.
"You know, he never sat down and told us what he was involved in," he recalled. "Obviously, I made observations, and then as I got older, I read the newspapers, and people would tell me things. And he was this other person, but he never tried to bring that home."
Michael Franzese idolized his father, who was always there to cheer him on at Little League baseball games. But to law enforcement officials, Sonny Franzese was a brutal mob enforcer, responsible for some 35 killings. Now 84, he is the oldest New York mobster in the federal prison system.
In the late 1960s, with his father under indictment, young Michael came under the wing of crime boss Joe Colombo. Michael, a college student, was deflected from his dream of becoming a doctor and instead became an "associate" of La Cosa Nostra, the Italian American mob.
In time, he rose to the rank of capo, or captain, and oversaw many legitimate and illegal businesses.
The most lucrative was a gasoline wholesale scheme that cheated the government out of millions of dollars in taxes. "We devised a system using Panamanian companies, and we were able to defraud them out of several hundred million dollars," said Michael Franzese. "To give you an idea, we were selling half a billion gallons of gasoline a month. The tax at that time, between federal, state, and local, was about 35 cents a gallon. And we were taking a good portion of that 35 cents and putting it in our pockets."
During his Mafia career, he had financial interests in music and entertainment, in auto leasing and labor unions, often crossing the line into illegal activities.
But a turning point came in 1985, when he faced an inquisition by his crime associates, who suspected he was not giving them the agreed-upon share of the profits. The confrontation took place in the basement of a darkened house in Brooklyn. He says he was not cheating them, but he was still scared.
"I was called into a meeting, and my dad was called in before me," he said. "Quite honestly, I had been down that road before with others, not myself, as the target. And I walked into that room not knowing if I was going to walk out again. If you ask me today, why I did it, I still don't know what went through my mind, but I figured I was a soldier, this is the life, we've got to do it."
He convinced his mob associates that he wasn't cheating them, but after that he began to seek a way out of his life as a Mafia soldier. In late 1985, he decided to leave the mob, although his legal problems would linger for many years.
Michael served part of a 10-year sentence, was released and jailed again, and was finally free in 1994.
According to Michael Franzese, the New York mob is still intact, but aggressive prosecution by law enforcement officials has weakened it.
"I like to use this example," he said. "Al Capone, the most notorious criminal of our era, when he got indicted and convicted, he got 15 years. He did seven. Today for that same crime, he'd have [gotten] 1,500 years, and they'd have taken everybody around him under the new racketeering laws and locked them up and said, here's where you're going to stay for the next 100 years unless you want to talk to us."
Today, he says, mob loyalties are more fragile - more Mafiosi are talking. But few Mafia defectors survive to discuss their past so openly. Michael Franzese says he has always resisted pressure to testify in court against his former Mafia bosses, and that may be one of the reasons he is alive today.
He adds that criminal colleagues who may had held grudges against him are either dead or are serving long stretches in federal prison.
With the help of his wife, Cammy, Michael Franzese has taken a new path, becoming a Christian youth worker and urging troubled youngsters to resist the lure of gangs and illegal riches.
"I'm a person of faith now, and it was through my faith that I was able to walk away from that life," he said. "And the moral of this story for me is no matter what you've done in your life, when your eyes are open and you have a chance, a way out ?. I certainly should either be dead or in prison for the rest of my life, and I was given a second chance. And I encourage people, if you're trapped in something that you know is wrong, to seek a way out."
Michael Franzese says his book, Blood Covenant, describes two initiations. The first came in a secret ritual in 1975, when he became a "made man," a sworn or full-fledged member of the Colombo crime family. The second came 10 years later, when he embarked on a new life.
Blood Covenant is published by Whitaker House.