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April 24, 2014

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Q&A: Michael Franzese:

Former Colombo family capo to visit Mob Museum and tell how he left the mafia but lived to talk about it

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Melissa Golden / AP

Former mobster Michael Franzese poses for a portrait before he speaks to athletes at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2007.

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Former mobster Michael Franzese speaks to athletes at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2007. Franzese tours the country speaking to college and professional athletes about the dangers of gambling and getting mixed up with the mob, and by his count has visited 350 schools.

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Michael Franzese knows he’s lucky to be alive.

More than 30 years ago, he was one of the most powerful mobsters in America. In 1980, he rose to the ranks of caporegime, a “capo” or captain, in the Colombo crime family in New York. There he masterminded scams in the auto industry, on union kickbacks and gasoline taxes. He escaped several indictments and earned millions in cash every week.

Fortune Magazine listed him as one of the “Fifty Most Wealthy and Powerful Mafia Bosses,” and Vanity Fair claimed he was one of the mob’s biggest money-earners since Al Capone.

The mafia was in his blood, too. His father, Sonny Franzese, was the underboss of the Colombo family in the 1960s. His father wanted Michael Franzese to be a doctor, but he threw that life away after his father received a 50-year sentence.

The mob was Michael Franzese’s life, until he met Camille Garcia. Franzese fell in love, but Garcia was a devout Christian. Franzese knew if he wanted to be with her, he’d have to do something no mobster he knew had ever survived — walk away without protective custody.

Franzese pleaded guilty to a racketeering charge, paid back $20 million to the government and served eight years in prison. Since then, by living a cautious lifestyle in Los Angeles, he’s managed to stay ahead of everyone who’s gone after him.

Now he’s sharing his story and giving motivational speeches to youth groups, schools, churches and professional athletes. Franzese will be at the Mob Museum on Friday to talk about his life. Before then, he spoke with the Sun about growing up around the mob, and what it took to get out.

Growing up in a mob family, how difficult is it to avoid that life?

It’s hard to avoid. … When I was growing up, my dad always had seven or eight different agencies investigating him, and every one of them would have a car parked outside house 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Quite honestly, I grew up hating police. I hated the government and anything to do with law enforcement because of what I witnessed. They were the enemy, and my dad was the good guy. I grew up with that distorted point of view.

What experiences with law enforcement did you have growing up?

One incident that always stood out in my mind, because I was younger, is I was playing ball on the street and a kid threw the ball over my head, and it rolled down over the hill. Two of the agents were parked in a car, and the ball rolls down to the car. He gets out and stops the ball with his foot. I was 10 years old. When I got there, he pulled his jacket coat aside and he had a gun there. He said, “This is going to be for your old man one day.”

What was the process like when you decided to quit the mob life?

There’s no blueprint for walking away from that life without going into a (witness protection) program or going into hiding. My plan was to take a plea on this other case they were indicting me on, do some prison time, pay the government some money, marry my wife and move out to California. … I figured after 10 or 12 years they’d forget about me, I’ll live happily ever after out in California. It didn’t work out that way. When I was put in a position to renounce my life and I did, I didn’t realize it was going to be broadcast all over the place.

It shot back to New York like a rocket, and at that point I was in a lot of trouble. … My dad disowned me at the time, the boss put a contract on me, the feds tell me you’re a dead man anyway, you cooperate with us, we’ll put you in a program. I had a rough time for a number of years.

How did you survive?

I knew the mentality of the guys. Your best friend walks you into a room and you don’t walk out again. I moved out to California, I don’t put the house or utilities in my name, I don’t walk my dog every morning at 7 o’clock, I don’t go to the same restaurant, I don’t go to any nightclubs. I changed my whole life around.

I’m on my guard the whole time. I never sold anybody short. What happened throughout the years, just about everybody I ran with is either dead or in prison for the rest of your life. So I kind of outlasted everybody.

Now that you give motivational speeches, what message do you try to convey to the audience?

It’s all about encouragement: letting people understand that if I can come back from this situation, anybody could. I believe strongly in my faith and forgiveness, and just try to encourage people that are struggling. That’s the theme, that’s the thread.

Had you been to Vegas as a mobster? What was that like?

Hundreds of times back in the day, in the late '70s, early '80s. The Dunes was my place. I would be down there every other week. … It was great. We had the run of the place. I had a $2 million credit line between myself and all the guys at the Dunes. Everything was comped. … We had a big presence back in '70s and '80s, and that was my time. It was wide-open back then, not like today where the Gaming Board is on top of everybody. It was great for guys like me; we had the run of the place.

Do you still look over your shoulder today or is your day-to-day a little more regular now?

It’s more regular, but I still don’t take things for granted. When I’m in certain places, I make sure I have resources around me I should have. I don’t sell people short, I never do. I was part of that life and there’s guys there that are very capable of doing things. … I’m just fortunate to be out of that life.

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