When mobster Michael Franzese walked away from organized crime to follow Christ, the FBI thought it was another one of his scams. Fourteen years later, he’s still proving them wrong.
Michael Franzese’s life can be summed up in two words: opposite extremes. He took a blood oath to join the mob and then took a blood covenant to accept Christ. He was a member of New York City’s Colombo crime family and then joined the family of God. He worked on the front lines of illegal sports gambling, and now he preaches an anti-gambling message to professional and college athletes. He amassed millions in legitimate business for the mob, and now he claims a modest lifestyle.
In 1989, Franzese walked away from the mob to live a new life as a born-again Christian and family man. His decision did not come without skepticism. The FBI, media and mob associates believed his claim of newfound religion was his grandest scam of all.
Today, doubters still exist, including those who believe he’s lying low for the perfect moment to seize the alleged millions in hiding, but mostly eyewitnesses are amazed that he’s not in a coffin or leading a new life in the government’s Witness Protection Program.
Born in Brooklyn in 1951, Franzese was one of seven children raised by his mother, Christina, and stepfather, Sonny Franzese, a top enforcer of the Colombo crime family. He grew up attending Catholic school and was an altar boy at the local parish. He recalls that Catholicism was “more of a subject in school than a religion.”
While the mob was a normal part of family life, Franzese and his two brothers were not required to join. He originally followed the wishes of his mother and stepfather and enrolled as a pre-med student at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. But following his stepfather’s 50-year prison sentence, Franzese dropped out of school after three years, and, in 1975, at the age of 24, decided to follow in his stepfather’s footsteps.
“The mob life for a member is not just a business,” he says. “It’s a way of life, and the business is just part of that.”
His education and business head determined his role in the family. He became the moneymaker by avoiding the traditional Mafia domains in favor of the enormously lucrative edges of the legitimate business world. He was touted “one of the biggest earners the mob had seen since Al Capone, and the youngest individual on Fortune magazine’s survey of ‘The Fifty Biggest Mafia Bosses'” (Vanity Fair magazine).
He also masterminded not-so-legitimate scams, from auto dealerships to union kickbacks, from financial services to the world of sports and entertainment, to a multibillion-dollar gasoline tax scheme.
While most all of his former mob associates have either suffered tragic deaths or been condemned to life in prison, Franzese, though frequently indicted, spent a mere seven years in jail. From 1985 to 1989, he served a prison term as part of a plea agreement that Cammy Garc�a, a born-again dancer in one of his films and soon-to-be wife, convinced him to take. The couple married in 1985, the same year Franzese made an initial decision for Christ–a life-changing choice that he gave himself to more fully in 1989.
A parole violation in 1991 landed him back in jail for three more years–and may have saved his life. It was during the next 36 months behind bars that he developed his faith in God. “Proverbs 16:7 gave me strength during the 29 months I spent in lockdown because of threats on my life. It says when a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, even his enemies are at peace with him.”
Part of his saving grace was his personal policy to never name names regarding events that happened years ago despite government pressure to do so. “Naming names is not productive,” he says.
The fact that Franzese is alive 14 years after he walked away from his involvement in organized crime is a surprise to everyone except Franzese. There were rumors that Franzese wouldn’t live to see the printing of his first book, Quitting the Mob, released in 1992 by HarperCollins. Now, he’s survived to see the release of his second book, Blood Covenant, released in January from Whitaker House.
The first book, written primarily for a secular audience, was graphic in nature, including profanity and violence. The latest book brings readers up-to-date on Franzese’s life and ministry.
“I’d like to think there is a fairly big difference in the contents,” says the 52-year-old Franzese. “When I wrote Quitting the Mob I was on parole and just two months prior to the book being released, I was sent back to prison. I was a young Christian, and I believe that we told just the beginning of my conversion and transformation.”
When Franzese was finishing up his prison term, he was approached by the FBI to work on an anti-gambling video in conjunction with the major sports leagues. The success of that video ushered in requests for him to tell his personal story to major league baseball, NCAA and NBA athletes.
“I had never spoken before,” he says. “At first there were some objections because they were bringing in this guy who used to corrupt players to meet with the league’s most valuable assets.” But, he went before a baseball team for the first time at spring training in 1996, eventually visiting all 28 teams.
“I’m kind of like an ounce of prevention, explaining the dangers that gambling and organized crime figures, and people associated with gambling, can pose to athletes personally and to their careers. The No. 1 question of ‘Why are you still alive?,’ gives me the chance to get to share my testimony.”
The only franchise that has not come on board with Franzese’s proactive approach is the NFL. “They participated in the video, but don’t want to highlight the problem.”
According to Franzese, gambling by athletes is at a near-record high. “Aside from the era of prohibition, sports gambling is as big a problem now as it ever has been,” he says.
“In the last couple of years it’s amazing how many athletes are serious gamblers. It’s an extension of their competitiveness. A lot of times you can draw them into situations where the outcome of a game could have been compromised.”
Another ministry grew from Franzese’s involvement with young people coming into the prison system on drug-related charges. “I found myself ministering to them in a way that had an effect on them because of my background.” He reaches out to kids by using videos and curriculum to introduce them to career opportunities available in the sports and entertainment industries.
Franzese acknowledges that his time in the mob has given him a platform. “There would be nothing much for me to say if my background wasn’t in the mob because people are absolutely fascinated by it,” he says. “It’s a question of the perceived power, loyalty, money, honor and secret society.”
The success of HBO’s The Sopranos corroborates his claim. In 1996 he was approached to consult on a show for the FOX network about a mob family whose boss was named Tony Soprano. Franzese declined the offer citing conflict of interest due to other mob-related products he was developing for Universal Pictures.
“Goes to show you how smart I am,” he says. “But, then again, FOX turned the show down too.”
Part of his courtroom experience has carried over into his Christian experience. “I’ve experienced evidence of every kind: direct, circumstantial, corroborating. Evidence from eyewitnesses, informants, experts, wire taps, bugging devices, documents, DNA, ballistics and videotapes,” he says. “I am amazed at the overwhelming weight of the evidence that exists not only in our world, but in the entire universe in support of the Bible’s inescapable truth.”
One aspect of the Christian walk that Franzese is still trying to get a handle on is finding fellowship with other Christian men.
“One of the most attractive things about the mob life was the relationship that the men had with each other,” he says. “It was always, ‘Hey, I’ll watch your back if you’ll watch mine.’ No other walk of life shares that kind of relationship. It’s a different army with a different boss, but the same camaraderie should still exist with Christian men.”
Today, Franzese is not holed up in some remote part of the country with a fake disguise and new name. And he’s not fearful of repercussions. Instead, he is being a faithful husband to Cammy and their seven children, earning a legitimate living and helping others in the process.
“From the time I discovered my faith I knew I would be OK,” Franzese says. “In staying in prayer and searching for God, He navigated a series of events that has led me to where I am today.”
Where he is today is living in Middle America at his modest home in Santa Monica, California. Gone are the vacation homes, private planes and sports cars. However, his role as coach of his son’s Little League team didn’t go unnoticed. The New York Times couldn’t resist a story about a reformed mob guy coaching Little League.
Franzese still is in contact with his family, who for the most part has come to accept his Christianity. His stepfather, now 84, is back in prison on a probation violation with release scheduled for this summer. Since 1970 he has spent 25 years in prison.
Numerous offers to tell his story on the big screen are often rejected. He’s holding out for an offer that accurately portrays his transformation.
“I look at my conversion through the eyes of an ex-mob guy and the experiences of that life help strengthen my faith every day.”
Rhonda Sholar had reservations about sitting through The Godfather, but her husband made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. An accomplished writer and former magazine editor, she is a regular contributor to New Man.