A former Mafia boss has opened up on life in the Mob, why it fell apart and what his experiences can teach young people here in the UK thinking of joining street gangs today.
Michael Franzese, 71, was a senior ranking ‘Caporegime’ in the Colombo crime gang which, alongside the Genovese, Gambino, Lucchese and Bonnano families, dominated New York for much of the 20th century.
He notoriously masterminded a huge gasoline tax swindle which netted his crew a staggering $9million each week and he was even portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s gangster classic ‘Goodfellas’.
But when the ‘Prince of the Mafia’ did the unthinkable and renounced the mob in 1995, he became one of the few men to walk away from ‘that life’ and live to tell the tale.
As he prepares to embark on a tour across the UK, Franzese sat down with Metro.co.uk to discuss life in the Mafia, what made it so successful, what eventually brought it crashing down and why it will never be the same again.
Although infamous in his own right, Franzese is not even the most notorious mobster in his own family – let alone the one he served for 20 years on the street.
His father John ‘Sonny’ Franzese was a towering figure in the Colombo family, serving as Joe Colombo’s feared underboss. Michael describes him as ‘kind of like the John Gotti of the sixties’.
He initially had no wish for his son to be involved in organised crime, but Michael decided to drop out of college to support his family when his dad was given a 50-year sentence for bank robbery.
Recalling his introduction into the Mafia, or Cosa Nostra – ‘our thing’, Michael says: ‘You can’t just go up to somebody and say “I’d like to join”. Someone has to propose you and vouch for you.
‘In my case, it was my dad.
‘I was a recruit for about two-and-a-half years. During that time I had to be prepared every day, you know, a lot of times dressed up in a suit. You come in and you’re at the beck and call of the boss and your capo at that time.
‘A lot of times I would drive them around, go to different meetings, sit in, keep my mouth shut, and learn the ropes. Other times, I was sent to talk to people.
‘They kind of test your capabilities at that point and see if you have what it takes to become a member.’
For Franzese that night came on Halloween in 1975, when he walked into a room with the boss and senior leaders of the family.
Then aged just 24, his finger was cut with a knife, spilling blood onto a card cupped in his hands depicting a saint which was then set alight.
He was told: ‘Violate what you know about this life, betray your brothers, and you will die and burn in hell like the saint is burning in your hands. Do you accept?’
Michael says: ‘You take an oath, a very serious oath in a solemn ceremony. They want you to know the seriousness of what you’re getting involved in.
‘You are basically committing your life before anything else at that point to Cosa Nostra.
‘It’s complete loyalty. I don’t think people understand what that oath means, the oath of Omerta. A lot of people think you take that oath to lie, steal, kill and cheat. It’s none of that.
‘The oath is an oath of silence. You’re never supposed to admit that the life even exists. You never talked about it and, obviously, you don’t betray it in any way.
‘That’s what it’s all about. The life is supposed to be secret.’
Michael isn’t aware of a similar ritual anywhere else in the underworld, and believes the Mafia’s organised structure and strict adherence to the oath is what allowed it to survive and prosper for so long.
He says: ‘I had a couple of Russian guys that were part of my crew and basically, they’re very clannish. They don’t have a secret ceremony like we do.
‘They don’t have an organisation and a structure like we do. They’re more like whoever’s making the most money and carries themselves the right way, that’s the guy they listen to.
‘It was much different with us. I’m not aware of that with the Mexican mafia, I think the Aryan Brotherhood has some kind of a deal, Hell’s Angels in the United States has some kind of an initiation.
‘But I always say this. The Mafia Cosa Nostra in America survived and prospered under some very severe conditions for well over 100 years.
‘And the reason it was successful like that was because of the oath that we took, because of the strict adherence to that oath for most of the time until things started to collapse and cave in in the mid-eighties, and because of the discipline and the structure. That’s why we survived.’
By the mid-eighties, Michael was at the height of his power. In 1986, Fortune Magazine included him on its list of the ‘Fifty Most Wealthy and Powerful Mafia Bosses’, five places behind Gotti.
‘Out of that list of 50, 48 are dead and number 49 is still in prison – he’s elderly – and I’m the only one alive and free,’ Franzese says.
With the target that was already on his back by virtue of his family name now growing even bigger, he took the unprecedented decision to walk away from the Mob.
How does such a high-ranking member of a major crime family walk away without entering witness protection and live to tell the tale?
‘Well, I didn’t formally hand in my resignation,’ he says. ‘It was part of a plan I had to break away from that life.
‘People ask me, “Mike, did you go in and tell people you were leaving?” If I would have went in and told them I was leaving I would have left at that moment and I wouldn’t be here today.
‘It took me a while to conclusively come to the point where I knew this was the right move. I’d go to bed at night leaving the life and wake up staying in.
‘It was very, very tough, because that was my life for so long and I felt like I was betraying my oath, betraying my dad, betraying my guys by not being there for them.
‘We had a war in our family in 1991 to 1994 and there was a strong pull on me at the time to get back in. I was asked to because I had a big crew and I felt terrible for a while that I was betraying the life that I had bonded myself with.’
He went on: ‘I thought that after 10 or 12 years they would just forget about me and I would move out to the west coast and live my life.
‘Obviously, it didn’t happen that way because I was so high-profile and everybody wrote it up that I was leaving the life and people thought I was going to become a major witness, so I had a lot of trouble with that for a number of years.
‘But quite honestly, I knew that life pretty well and I knew how to protect myself. I knew what the guys would do and what they wouldn’t do and I was very careful and disciplined in that regard.
‘Over a period of time when people realised I wasn’t out to hurt anybody, I just wanted out, and they either died off or went to prison and I outlasted everybody.’
Michael says his wife of now 37 years Camille Garcia played ‘a tremendous role’ in his decision to walk away, adding: ‘If it wasn’t for her I never would have left. She was my motivation.
‘I didn’t want her to have a life like my mum, my brothers and sisters and I had quite honestly, and just about every family of every member of that life is destroyed in some way.
‘She was a young woman, I fell in love with her and I said why would I marry her and stay in this life and she’ll end up in misery. So, I had to make a choice and I chose her.’
He denies living in fear or constantly looking over his shoulder, instead relying on a well-honed sense of caution.
‘That’s not a macho thing, it’s just part of my character,’ he says. ‘But I wasn’t stupid about it.
‘I was cautious when I needed to be and I never sold my former associates short. They were very capable and I always knew that and so I was just careful when I needed to be.
‘I don’t take steps now, but I’m still aware of it. I’m still cautious of it. It’s just an instinctual thing.
‘I’m always looking at my surroundings, who might be there. When I go into a restaurant or something I’m just observant, I think the word would be.
‘Guys like me stand out, you know? You can’t miss them. But I’m always watching for things. It’s natural for me.’
Franzese’s exit coincided with the end of the Mafia’s golden age in New York.
Previously confined to picking off low-ranking mobsters, the authorities deployed a ground-breaking piece of legislation called the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act.
It made it much simpler for police and prosecutors to obtain warrants for bugs and wiretaps which could circumvent the Mafia’s code of silence by eavesdropping on their private conversations.
By using the evidence from one wiretap to obtain another, and so on, the authorities were finally able to turn their gaze upwards from the lower rungs of the family and set their sights on demolishing them from the top down.
The most famous example was the Mafia Commission trial, in which the heads of three of the five families were given 100-year prison sentences.
A fourth, the Gambino’s powerful don Paul Castellano was assassinated by Gotti’s crew, while the fifth, Philip Rastelli was spared prosecution in that case when the Bonannos were kicked off the Commission in the wake of undercover FBI agent Joe Pistone’s infiltration.
Franzese is under no illusion RICO dismantled the Mafia as it was then, inflicting a near fatal blow from which it has yet to recover some 35 years later.
He says: ‘A lot of people like to pin it on John Gotti that he brought down the Mob. Absolutely not true.
‘It was the RICO act and the sentencing reform act that caused guys to flip and turn. It made it easy to indict people. Very little corroboration was needed to get a conviction.
‘It was devastating. They wiped out a lot of major guys and it would never been the same. It’s not the same now. It would have taken a lot more time and they would have needed a lot more resources.
‘For example, during my time in that life they had I believe 1,200 to 1,400 agents in the FBI that were assigned to all five families and we had 750 members about at that time.
‘So they had two agents almost to every one guy. Now they have under 100 agents, well under 100 assigned to the families in New York because they wiped out so many and guys are kind of undercover, they don’t have the same power controlling the unions and various things that we were involved in, so there’s less scrutiny on that right now.
‘Back in the day there wasn’t a day that went by when there wasn’t a major mob story in a major newspaper in New York. Not a day.
‘Now, I read the New York Post every day and maybe every six months you’ll see a story. And then it’s in and out. It’s not a front page story. We used to be front page all the time.
‘That’s definitely attributed to RICO, I don’t care what anybody says. That was my period of time. I got hit with two federal RICO indictments, I know how devastating they are.
‘But that was it. It’ll never be the same as long as those laws are in place. If there was no RICO we’d still be doing our thing.
‘They might have got us a little bit, but they wouldn’t have put a Commission trial together. There’s no way.’
During his time in the Mob, Franzese brushed shoulders with infamous figures like the flamboyant Gotti, the teak-tough Sammy ‘The Bull’ Gravano, the murderous Roy DeMeo and the enigmatic Vincent ‘Chin’ Gigante.
Those names alone were enough to strike fear into the hearts of anyone daft enough to cross them, but did Franzese ever get a sense of awe from any of those top figures?
He says: ‘My dad, Sonny Franzese was kind of like the Gotti of the sixties, my dad was the high profile figure around at that point, so as far as I was concerned I grew up with the best so I wasn’t in awe of anybody else. I respected them.
‘On the street, Gotti didn’t really have a reputation. It all happened after the Castellano hit that he became bigger than life in that life.
‘I knew of him, but I certainly wasn’t in awe of him in any way. Nor would I say of anyone else.
‘I respected a lot of them, I don’t want anyone to get me wrong, Fat Tony Salerno – the boss of the Genovese family – I had a lot of respect for him, Chin Gigante, only because of their reputations. I had a lot of respect for them, my boss Carmine Persico, Joe Colombo when I knew him.
‘But again, I was a part of that life, so it’s not like you’re holding them in awe. I can’t explain it.’
For the past 25 years, Franzese has been sharing his experiences as a motivational speaker and works to inspire youths and vulnerable adults against a life of organised crime.
Asked if he has any words of advice for the young people caught up in gang culture and knife crime here in the UK, he said: ‘These young kids, I encountered many of them in prison, and a lot of these gangbangers we call them back in the States the sad thing about it is they all have the same story.
‘They all came from broken homes, without a father figure in the house and they all gravitate towards the gang on the street because that becomes their family.
‘To me, I attribute all this to the break-up of the family. These kids don’t have any guidance no value for human life either, which is even more frightening.
‘Unfortunately they take that at a young age and it stays with them.
‘I have a lot of influence on them because they look at the mafia as the biggest gang in the world, and the movies help. Movies are what attract and motivate them to want to become part of that life and want to live like we did.
‘It’s amazing when I talk to them and they tell me, “Michael, we saw the movies and you had the women and the cars and all the power, you dressed good and you had money”, and I say yeah did you see the end of the movie, or did you just watch the beginning?
‘Who got killed, whose family got destroyed, who went to prison forever? They don’t see that part. They don’t think that’s going to happen to them. And it’s very unfortunate and we’re losing a lot of these young kids.
Michael’s top three most authentic Mafia films
- Gotti (1996) – Franzese lauds this HBO film as ‘brilliantly acted, brilliantly done’: ‘It’s extremely realistic because the script was written from many of John’s own words using the surveillance tapes. It was very well done and I was very familiar with that time period.’
- Goodfellas (1990)/Donnie Brasco (1997) – ‘They really show the essence of that life.’
- A Bronx Tale (1993) – ‘This movie was brilliantly done. Chazz Palminteri is a very dear friend and he did a brilliant job with the script. He portrayed a character the way he should have portrayed it.’
What about The Godfather? Sammy ‘The Bull’ famously said he ‘floated out of the theatre’ after watching it.
Michael says: ‘Obviously, people ask what about The Godfather? Parts I and II were brilliant movies but they’re in a different category.
‘They were fictional but I think in many ways they encapsulated the essence of the life.’
‘I spoke at a programme last time I was here. It was Gloves On, Knives Down. And they listen. They want guidance – they’e kids. They just need guidance.’
If Franzese is testament to anything at this stage of his life, it is the fact that it’s never too late to turn your life around.
‘I grew up in the life and I spent 20 years on the street and several more in prison. When I made my break I was in my forties. But look how it turned out.
‘Over the last 30 years my life has been far superior to what it was before. I’ve got a family, I’ve got a career, I’ve got a ministry.
‘It doesn’t matter how old you are, whenever you are ready to make that break you can make it and whatever you have left of your life you can put it to good use.’
Catch Michael Franzese on his UK tour
Michael Franzese will be speaking at venues across the UK as part of his nationwide tour titled ‘An Evening with Michael Franzese – The Real Goodfella’.
It opens on Saturday night at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane, with Sir Trevor McDonald interviewing the former Mobster before the floor is opened to questions from the audience.
For tickets visit www.michaelfranzesetour.com
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