Dan Wooding, Founder/Director ASSIST Ministries, shares this good news story.
It isn’t often that I get to interview a former gangster!
But last month I attended Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California, one shared his story with me at Greg Laurie’s 25th SoCal Harvest Crusade before nearly 30,000 people and a worldwide TV audience of millions.
I sat with Michael Franzese (63), formerly a high-ranking member of one of New York’s most violent and ruthless crime families, and learned more of his extraordinary story.
Michael shared that his was a life filled with power, luxury and deadly violence. Avoiding traditional mob domains, Michael masterminded brilliant scams on the edge of the legitimate business world. From auto dealerships and union kickbacks, to financial services and the sports and entertainment industries.
At one time, Franzese was generating US$5-8 million per week through legal and illegal channels in order to fund the criminal activities of the mob. In fact, he was so notorious that 14 different law enforcement agencies banded together in an attempt to bring him down, and eventually they succeeded.
Just a few years ago, Franzese was named by Vanity Fair as one of the biggest money earners the mob had seen since Al Capone. And, at the age of 35, Fortune Magazine listed him as number 18 on its list of the ‘Fifty Most Wealthy and Powerful Mafia Bosses’ just five behind John Gotti, the then boss of the Gambino crime family in New York City.
‘No one is beyond God’s reach!’
Dan Wooding interviewing Michael Franzese
Caught, tried, and imprisoned for ten years, Franzese shared that at his lowest moment while in his prison cell when he realized he had lost everything. It was then that a guard pushed a Bible through the slot in his cell door, and Michael began to examine the character and the claims of Christ.
Since then, he has become a committed Christian, accepted God as his heavenly Father, and he has publicly renounced organised crime, created a foundation for helping youth, and has become a motivational speaker and is telling people his story as a bridge to God’s story. His message? No one is so bad that they are beyond God’s reach.
I began by asking Franzese to share about his life, and he began by saying, ‘My dad [John (Sonny) Franzese] was the underboss of the Colombo crime family, one of the five La Cosa Nostra families in New York. So I kind of grew up in the life style. My dad was a very high profile public figure at the time and was always under major investigation from the government. So I grew up in that kind of atmosphere.’
John (Sonny) Franzese (left) and his loyal son Michael Franzese leave court
‘Originally my dad didn’t want me to be in that life, Michael added. ‘I was a pre-med student headed on my way to be a doctor when he got in some very serious trouble, was indicted several times, and eventually drew a long prison sentence.
‘At that point in time, Joe Colombo, who was the boss of our “family,” took me under his wing and, after a while, I dropped out of school and wanted to be on the street to help get my father get out of prison. He proposed me into that lifestyle and in 1975 I took an oath on Halloween night and became a “made member” of the Colombo crime family.’
I then asked him how he was able to generate US$5-8 million per week, and he replied, ‘I was very fortunate and I knew how to use that life to benefit me in business and was very active in that lifestyle and very aggressive on the street. I ended up creating a scam to defraud the government out of tax on every gallon of gasoline. It was up and down the east coast and also we started to branch out into other areas, but it was mainly New York, New England states right down to Florida.
‘At one point it was close to US$0.40 a gallon and I was selling half a billion gallons of gas a month. You do the math – it was a lot of money.’
Very violent life
He admitted that there was a lot of violence during his gangster days.
DVD cover of Michael Franzese’s story
‘That kind of life is very violent, and, unfortunately, if you’re part of that life you’re part of the violence and there’s no way to get around it,’ he said. ‘If anybody tells you differently they’re probably not being honest with you. So unfortunately it was part of my life, yes.
‘I never enjoyed that, but it’s a tense life and you have to worry about guys on the street, because I became a major target of law enforcement. I drew five indictments, so you’re worried about the government, and you’re worried about guys on the street, so it’s kind of tense, but you know you get through it at some point. That was my life at that time.’
Franzese went on to say, ‘I was indicted several times and I actually went to trial four times and was acquitted each time. I was even acquitted in a case that Rudy Giuliani brought against me in 1984. It was a big racketeering case and I beat him. But I eventually took a plea to racketeering mostly involving the gasoline business and I drew a ten year prison sentence. I also had a US$15 million restitution to pay off and I went off to do my time.’
He revealed that at first, the experience was ‘really terrible,’ stating, ‘Prison is never fun and they had me in solitary for three years. But I had been visiting my father since I was five years old, so I wasn’t afraid of prison, but I don’t think anybody enjoys it.’
Meeting Camille and discovering her love for God
Before going to prison in December 1985, he met the love of his life, Camille Garcia, who was the oldest of seven children and had it pretty tough growing up.
On his website, he wrote, ‘Cammy, as she was known by friends and family, had grown up in a modest, middle class neighborhood in Orange County, California just a stone’s throw away from the heart of Disneyland. Her father, Seferino Garcia, was a radical Chicano rights activist who had been arrested eight times during the turbulent 1970s, mostly during protests of one kind or another.
Michael with the love of his life, Camille
‘Her mother, Irma Garcia, was a devout Christian woman, who despite her husband’s radical ways, was deeply devoted to her family and raised her children in an atmosphere of love and warmth. She instilled in Cammy a strong sense of determination and taught her to seek God first while pursuing her true purpose in life.’
Michael told me that he married her in July 1985, went to prison in December of that year and they have been married now for 29 years.
‘It was her love of God and her foundation in faith that is what has kept us married I believe, and we’re very much in love,’ he said.
Now living to share the gospel
He then revealed the turning point in his life, and said, ‘A prison guard passed me a Bible the first night I came in on a parole violation in 1991 and it was the only night in my life I experienced hopelessness and that Bible, and reading about Jesus, really brought me through some very tough times until today.’
He went on to say that today his life is committed to sharing the gospel with as many people who will listen to him.
Movie ad for Michael’s upcoming film
‘Yes, sharing the gospel is what I live for,’ he said. ‘I’m in the ministry now and I am sharing the gospel at any opportunity I can get. I’ve become a pretty prolific speaker. I’ve written four books and I’ve got a big movie coming about my life on October 31 – this Halloween night – so I’m very excited. It’s called God the Father. I guess you get that little irony.’
I concluded the interview by asking him what advice he would give to anyone heading down a life of crime.
‘Any criminal activity is only a dead end street, he replied. ‘I tell anybody that’s having any kind of struggle in their life that I don’t know how to get through struggles without Jesus Christ. He’s been my hero, my Saviour; everything that I’ve had are only blessings that I attribute to my relationship with Jesus.’
Dan Wooding is ASSIST founder and international director. See all ASSIST News articles at www.assistnews.net.
To find out more about Michael Franzese, check out this exciting, impacting website michaelfranzese.com/ See also Resources for information on Blood Covenant