Michael Franzese in 2009
May 27, 1951|
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
|Other names||The Yuppie Don|
|Known for||Capo of the Colombo crime family|
Michael Franzese (born May 27, 1951) is a former New York mobster and caporegime of the Colombo crime family who was heavily involved in the gasoline tax rackets in the 1980s. Since then, he has publicly renounced organized crime, become a devoted Christian, created a foundation for helping youth, and become a motivational speaker.
Member of Colombo crime family
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Franzese is the son of reputed Colombo underboss John "Sonny" Franzese. He later moved to Long Island, which would become home to his countless number of operations. After finishing high school, Franzese entered Hofstra University and started a pre-med program. His father originally wanted him to become a doctor and not get involved in organized crime. However, around 1973-1974, Franzese decided to quit college to take care of his father and work for the Colombo family as Sonny was sentenced to 50 years in federal prison in 1967. Franzese became acquainted with his father's friends such as Joseph Colombo and later became inducted as a soldier on Halloween night 1975. Franzese took the blood oath alongside best friend Jimmy Angelino, Joseph Peraino Jr., Salvatore Miciotta, Vito Guzzo Sr., and John Minerva. He and Miciotta are the only ones alive today. Peraino was murdered by hitmen in 1982 at the doorstep of a home in Gravesend, Brooklyn, his father was seriously wounded and a civilian was accidentally killed. Guzzo was also a union official who vanished in 1987, he was presumed murdered by Colombo associate Vincent "Three Fingers" Ricciardo at an Upstate, New York hunting trip. Angelino was shot to death in 1988 due to a power struggle within the Colombo mafia. Minerva was murdered with friend Michael Imbergamo on March 25, 1992 during the 3rd Colombo mafia war, which resulted in 12 murders in total from 1991 to 1993 and the convictions of over 80 American Mafia mobsters. High-ranking Colombo member Thomas Gioeli was sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2014 for ordering the Minerva murder, along with other crimes. Franzese was briefly mentored by Colombo soldier Joseph "Joe-Joe" Vitacco (1927-1980). In 1980, he had become a caporegime, or captain, of a crew and later admitted that he had between 300-500 associates and soldiers serving under him. He also has said that he bumped into FBI agent Joseph Pistone, better known as Bonanno crime family associate Donnie Brasco, several times on the streets of New York however the pair never had any criminal dealings. Both went on to star in the 2013 Inside the American Mob, a National Geographic documentary. However Franzese did have criminal dealings with future Gambino crime family boss John Gotti. One such transaction is detailed in his book which refers to a flea market dispute. Then-soldier Gotti during the late 1970s had a meeting with him, Angelo Ruggiero was also present, Franzese was contacted by a flea market owner and complained that his partner was using and selling drugs at the market in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Franzese agreed to frighten him and would become the new partner, sending Colombo soldier-turned informant Anthony Sarivola and another member who remains unidentified. Gotti however claimed that the scared-off partner was an associate of his. After several meetings, Franzese proposed to buy Gotti out. Gotti replied "buy me out? I buy you out" and handed over $70,000. Franzese later expressed admiration for Gotti, citing his strict gangster lifestyle and his overwhelming ego. Franzese has also admitted to having dealings with Gambino and Genovese crime family bosses, Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno and Paul "Big Paul" Castellano.
After being asked numerous times about regrets and troubles in his past life, Franzese recalled being "sent for" or "called in" with his father to attend a meeting with the presence of the hierarchy of the Colombo family; in Mafia tradition a member is subtlety forced to go to a meeting and often does not come out alive. His best friend Vincent "Jimmy" Angelino, another captain who was based in Brooklyn, picked him up and drove him to the Brooklyn basement; Angelino himself would later be called upon to attend a similar meeting however he was fatally shot by Carmine Sessa in 1988 while in attendance. He was thoroughly interrogated for several hours by his assigned capo Andrew "Andy Mush" Russo, underboss Gennaro Langella and Colombo family boss Carmine Persico. Luckily Franzese talked his way out of the very potential setup, even with an assassin present who was waiting for the signal to murder Franzese. He also regrets the murders of many friends whom he could not help, the first being the 1981 murder of Thomas Genovese, distant cousin of Vito Genovese. About a month after serving almost 10 years in prison, Genovese was found shot in the head in the trunk of his car, for his role in kidnapping Lucchese crime family soldier Francesco "Frankie the Wop" Manzo and the nephew of Carlo Gambino, Emanuel "Manny" Gambino, for ransom money. Afterwards Franzese met with 4 new Colombo family recruits and captain John "Johnny Irish" Matera which implied that the murder of Genovese was approved by Carmine Persico and that the recruits had successfully murdered Genovese as part of their initiation; Matera would be gunned down 2 years later. The murder of Lawrence "Champagne Larry" Carrozza in May 1983 affected him deeply. Carrozza, who Franzese has previously described as a brother, was having an affair with his sister and also had a drug problem. Carrozza was incredibly loyal to Franzese, even insisting of getting rid of Joseph Anthony Laezza, who he suspected was informing on Franzese; Laezza was found dead with 11 stab wounds and 6 shots to the head and face in January 1979. Carrozza was shot in the back of the head in a parked car in Brooklyn by captain-turned informant Salvatore "Big Sal" Miciotta, who also took the blood oath with Franzese in 1975.
Franzese was contacted by Lawrence Salvatore Iorizzo, who initially thought of the scheme. Iorizzo was being hassled by associates of another crime family and promised Franzese a percentage if he would defend and solve the issue. The pair set up 18 stock-bearer companies based in Panama, which was later called a daisy chain. Once authorities suspected one company of fraudulent activity, Franzese would move onto the next company. Under law at the time in Panama, gasoline could be sold tax-free from one wholesale company to the next. Iorizzo, who later testified and brought the entire operation to an end in 1983, craved power. As a result of Iorizzo slapping around Shelly Levine over $270,000 debt, Franzese had to cut in Genovese family soldier Joseph "Joe Glitz" Galizia into his operation. He had organized the Russian Mafia in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn and both organizations became partners, Franzese sold millions of gallons of gasoline. The family would collect the state and federal taxes, but keep the money instead. At the same time, they were often selling the gas at lower prices than at legitimate gas stations. In 1986, Fortune Magazine listed Franzese as number 18 on its list of the "Fifty Most Wealthy and Powerful Mafia Bosses." Franzese himself has admitted that at the height of his career he was earning between $5–10 million per week, almost $30 million per month. According to a Federal report, Franzese made more money for a crime family than anyone since Chicago Outfit boss Al Capone.
In 1985, Franzese was indicted on 14 counts of racketeering, counterfeiting and extortion from the gasoline bootlegging racket. In 1986, Franzese pleaded guilty to two counts. He was sentenced to ten years in federal prison with $14 million in restitution payments. During an interview with Patrick Bet-David, Franzese said that he was contacted by attorney Roy Cohn, who had ties to John Gotti, shortly after he was indicted. Cohn insisted that he would "squash the indictment" for $250,000. Franzese instead offered $1 million and told Cohn to obtain the money after he was found not guilty, however Cohn did not contact back, leaving Franzese to feel that Cohn's offer was a scam attempt.
Entertainment, sports management and other businesses
During the 1970s, he began to enter the world of legitimate business and by the mid 1980s Franzese had a stronghold on various businesses such as car dealerships, leasing companies, auto repair shops, restaurants, nightclubs, a contractor company, movie production and distribution companies, travel agencies and video stores.
By 1980, Franzese was a partner with booking agent Norby Walters in his firm. Franzese's role was to intimidate existing and prospective clients. In 1981, Franzese successfully extorted a role for Walters in the US tour by singer Michael Jackson and his brothers. In 1982, the manager for singer Dionne Warwick wanted to drop Walters as an agent; Franzese met with the manager and persuaded him to keep Walters.
In 1983, the FBI launched an investigation into boxing promoter Don King's organized crime connections and targeted Franzese to introduce FBI undercover agent, using the alias Victor Quintana, to King. Franzese, who had never met King, was introduced to him by civil rights leader Al Sharpton. Franzese first met Sharpton through Genovese crime family mobster, Daniel Pagano. Sharpton later helped Franzese with muscle as he targeted the security guard unions in Atlantic City. Quintana was to give the impression that he was buying his way into the boxing world in order for King to reveal his criminal associations, however the investigation subsequently collapsed after Quintana failed to follow through with several hundred thousand dollars.
In 1985, Walters set up a sports management agency with Franzese as a silent partner. At a meeting he agreed to hand over $50,000 in return for a 25 percent interest from the sports agency. Franzese was later subpoenaed to testify at Walters' trial in 1989, as Walters had invoked his name to frighten college athletes into signing management contracts, including Maurice Douglass.
In December 1987, while in prison, Franzese decided to walk away from the Colombo family and organized crime. In 1989, Franzese was released from prison on parole after serving 43 months. Franzese moved to Los Angeles. Prosecutors considered Franzese to be a high-ranking member of the Colombo crime family and sought his cooperation against his former organized crime associates, however using deceptive tactics, Franzese did not cooperate.
On December 27, 1991, Franzese was sentenced in New York to four years in federal prison for violating the probation requirements from his 1989 release. Franzese had been arrested in Los Angeles on a tax fraud accusation and was sent back to New York for the probation hearing. In court, prosecutors complained that Franzese had only started making the balance of his court ordered restitution payments earlier that year. Per Franzese, the balance of his restitution payments were completed in 1993. Prosecutors also said Franzese was not considered by the government to be a cooperating witness. He was ultimately released in 1994, he retired from the mob in 1995 and moved to California to be with his wife and children, the relocation was also a result of receiving multiple death threats.
In 1992, Franzese co-authored an autobiography, Quitting the Mob. In this book, Franzese discussed his criminal activities, life with his father, and interactions with many gangsters from across the United States and Europe.
Franzese has spoken on more than 400 college campuses, speaking to student athletes as an NCAA life skills speaker. Franzese has addressed professional athletes with Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Football League. Franzese serves as a keynote speaker at corporate events and leads seminars for business and law students. He frequently speaks at Christian conferences, special events, and church services, including helping the Willow Creek Community Church in November 2016 to give each of the 70,000 inmates in the state of Illinois a Christmas package. Franzese also speaks at prisons throughout the world, such as Pentonville Prison in England. In 2016, he vowed to help Christian refugees fleeing the Middle East.
Franzese has been interviewed on the Renegade Talk Radio, Jim Rome Show, ESPN, HBO, Fox Sports, CNN, CNBC, TBN, MSNBC, Nat Geo, Fox News, The Savage Nation and USA Today. On July 23, 2002, while appearing on the HBO television program "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel," Franzese claimed that during the 1970s and 1980s, he persuaded New York Yankees players who owed money to Colombo loansharks to fix baseball games for betting purposes. The Yankees organization immediately denied Franzese's accusations.
In 2003, Franzese published Blood Covenant, an updated and expanded life story.
As of 2017, Franzese lives in Anaheim, California and is the father of 7 children. He is the author of 5 books, another is currently in the works and is expected to be released in 2018. His biopic, God the father, was released in theaters and cinemas across the U.S. on November 1, 2017.
In popular culture
In June 2013, the National Geographic Channel released a 6-part series called "Inside the American Mob," in which, as among other story lines, Franzese's climb up the ranks in the Colombo family is chronicled. On the show, Franzese provides detailed, first hand accounts of his life in organized crime, going all the way back to his childhood. During a candid interview in one of the episodes, he describes in detail the night he became a made man in the Colombo family.
In March 2015, he appeared in a two-part documentary on the American Mafia with television presenter and reporter Trevor McDonald. He spoke about his wealth, but also the impact of being a member of the Colombo Crime Family had on his family, and that was why he turned away from organized crime.
In May 2016, he appeared on The History Channel on a show called "The Definitive Guide To The Mob." He explained the inner workings of the mob and how he came up through the Colombo family.
In June 2018, it was announced Michael Franzese will host a stage musical, "A Mob Story," at the Plaza Hotel & Casino in downtown Las Vegas. The show was originally supposed to open on July 11, 2018, but has been postponed to August 8, 2018. The show "tells the tale of how the mob made Las Vegas, and how Vegas took down the mob." The show is created and directed by Jeff Kutash.
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- The Mafia with Trevor McDonald
- The Mafia with Trevor McDonald Episode 1
- The Mafia with Trevor McDonald, ITV, review: 'surreal' - Telegraph
- Trevor McDonald Meets the Mafia and exposes shocking tales - Daily Post
- The Mafia with Trevor McDonald, review: Nice guy Trevor just isn't cut out for the mean streets | The Independent