Michael Franzese is an American former New York mobster and caporegime of the Colombo crime family, and son of former underboss Sonny Franzese. He was heavily involved in the gasoline tax rackets in the 1980s. At the height of his operation, federal authorities claim Franzese generated close to a billion dollars a year in a gas-tax scheme he masterminded. Since then, he has publicly renounced organized crime, created a foundation for helping youth, and became a motivational speaker.
What was the main appeal of joining the mob for you?
I joined to help my day get out of prison. plain and simple. the money and power came for me later on. once i got in, i wanted both.
What is the process of becoming a “Made Man” like?
Very intense. very solemn, very serious. I took an oath with a picture of a saint burning in my hands. My thumb was cut with a knife and blood dropped on the floor. The oath is never to violate the brotherhood of La Cosa Nostra.
Is it generally harder for someone outside of the family to become a made man?
It is harder. you must be “proposed” by another made man. he vouches for you. my father did for me. the mob wants to know your background, where you came from. then you go through a pledge period where you must prove yourself.
Did you (or other made members) get an actual salary, or did you just have access to any money you needed?
ha. no salary you earn for yourself unless you were the boss. most guys were not good earners. trust me.
Where did you get the idea for the gas station scheme? And since it was getting so big, did you have any sort of an exit strategy in case the authorities got too close? Or would you just keep running the scam until you went down with the ship?
Gas tax scheme was one in a million. so much money. better then drugs and a lot less ugly. a guy in the biz came to me when some other mob guys tried to shake him down and move in on his business. i chased the guys away and the 2 of us devised this scheme to defraud the government out of the tax money on every gallon of gas. at it’s height, we sold 500 million gallons of gas a month and kept 20 – 30 cents a gallon of the tax money. do the math. lots of money.
What were the actual logistics of your gas tax scam?
The scheme was complicated, but we were way ahead of the authorities, they could not figure out what we were doing. if my partner didn’t turn snitch, they would never figured out the scam.
Could you go into detail about how you would find and proposition public officials to cooperate with you? Anything from police and inspectors all the way up to higher-ranking decision makers.
Like everything else, public officials, law enforcement… some of them like money and power. We knew how to use our influence and money to get to those who would play along. At one time, the mob controlled almost every major union in america. We had strength right into the White House back in the Kennedy days. believe it. it’s the truth.
Can you describe the most brutal/violent thing you ever witnessed while in the mob? The most brutal act you heard committed?
The demeo crew. chopped up bodies and buried the parts in cement drums. Witnessed death. it’s not pretty. Let’s leave it at that.
How many lives have you personally ended and how many have you been responsible for ending.
Tough question. know this. you are part of the life, you are part of the violence.
What were the most popular methods of intimidation and/or extortion?
Just following through with what you say you are going to do. if you say I’ll beat you with a bat if you don’t perform/pay, you know they will. It’s knowing you back up what you say that scares people.
What is the scariest situation you have been in?
Walked into a room one night and thought I was going to get killed. I was called in by my boss over money I generated in the gas business. That’s how it goes, you walk in and never walk out when you are in real trouble. I was in the right, proved it and her I am. But, brother, my heart was pounding, knees weak… Still don’t know why I went. I guess just a product of my life back then.
Who was the scariest person you ever encountered and what made them particularly frightening?
My dad was scary. saw him go off on people. scare because he was no bs. he would do exactly what he said. no fear in him.
You spent approximately three and a half years in prison. How were you treated by the other inmates that were aware of your past?
I spent almost 8 years in prison. 5 years, then 3 on a parole violation. i had a lot of publicity. i had a pedigree going in. i was treated well, with respect because i treated other inmates well. respect is a big thing in prison. FYI, both john Gotti and Carmine persico (my former boss) were both smacked around in prison. guys doing life without parole don’t care who you are if you disrespect them they have nothing to lose. didn’t hurt that Fortune Magazine named me as one of the 50 most powerful mob bosses in the US.
What was it like walking away from the mafia, was it accepted or were you threatened or hounded in any way?
I struggled mightily for years after walking away. my father disowned me. the family put a hit on me. the feds tried to make me a witness. lots of pressure. very tough. and very tough for me personally. even though i didn’t hurt anyone, i felt like i betrayed my oath and it really troubled me. only God and time were able to fix that.
Any fears about your safety today?
I can’t go back to brooklyn to live, or in NY in general. wouldn’t last. but i don’t live in fear. i am a person of strong faith now. God has had my back. remember, i am the only made man, a caporegime, that i know of who has walked away from the life, publicly, not entered a witness protection program and lived. it’s a God thing, my friend. not coincidence.
How much are you worth and have you really quit the mob or is this just deep cover?
I’m out. 15 years straight proves it. at one time, I was bringing $8-$10 million a week into my operation. had a jet, a helicopter – all the toys. today, I work for a living. for myself but I work.
Does the mafia still have a big presence in the US? Are they just better at hiding it now?
Yes. not nearly as big as when I was active in the 70’s – early 90’s. but still exists. don’t count it out. very resourceful.
Any stories of interaction with other organized crime “families”, such as Russian mob, Yakuza, Outlaw bike clubs, mexican prison gangs, etc?
A million. Spent 20 years in the life. Organized the Russian mob from Brighton beach in the gas business. Best partners I ever had. I taught them how to defraud the government out of hundreds of millions of dollars of tax money back then. They now are deep into medicare fraud, setting up fraudulent medical clinics all over the country. Would take hours to tell you all the stories.
What is your relationship like now with other former members?
Most everyone I ran with is either dead or in prison for the rest of their lives. I outlasted most all of the guys. blessed! Guys on the street will not really associate with me now. Would not look good for them. but I really didn’t have many enemies in the life. I made people earn money and that makes lots of friends.
How does the mob or other organized crime compare today with your day? Is it worse? Better? More or less brutal?
My day was pretty much towards the end of the golden age of the mob that began in the late 40’s. different today. i wouldn’t want to be a part of it. we had some integrity about us. respect and honor did mean something with the old timers. today??? the Russians have gotten pretty violent at times. but it’s all not what it was.
How do/would crime families view the more modern organized street gangs? A means to an end as partners or just petty criminals not to be trusted?
Petty criminals. no respect for human life. we chased them from our neighborhoods if they would even dare to enter.
Are there mob groupies like rock stars have?
And how. you would not believe the attraction to that life from men and women alike.
How accurate are most mob movies/television shows? If you could recommend one to watch for authenticity, which would it be?
Most authentic – Goodfellas and Donnie Brasco. They mention my name in Good fellas. The bar scene. I knew those guys very well. My era. saved Henry Hill’s life 2 x. I knew Paul Vario and Jimmy Burke well, also. And Left Guns Ruggerio was a good friend. Those two are the most accuarate depiction of that part of the life.
Is Goodfellas pretty close?
Very close. However, Henry hill never looked so good as he did in that movie. he was a low level guy, an associate. not nearly as close with Paul vario as the movie depicted. other then that, the Lufthansa robbery and all that followed was pretty accurate.
How accurately did The Sopranos portray the inner workings of the mob?
The best thing about the Sopranos was how he interacted with his family. mob guys also had family issues. the business stuff was not real realistic. made them look incompetent. some guys were, but others were pretty darn smart.
If a mob boss was ever visiting a psychiatrist he would be in the trunk of a car by the end of the week, along with the psychiatrist. But the family interaction was fairly legit.
Was Tommy DeSimone really that psychotic or was Pesci being over the top?
Pesci was a bit over the top, but i loved it. tommy was crazy, but pesci made him bigger then life.
It seems that a lot of families have been destroyed by all of the bloodshed and corruption that mafia groups like the Colombo family have perpetrated over the years, yet mobsters are generally romanticized in film and on TV. Do you agree that this is how these groups are generally portrayed? Do you think that this is harmful? What is your take on this with your new outlook on life?
The Godfather did more to raise the profile of the mob then any other movie. yes it’s harmful. the life should not be glamorized. why? it’s an evil life. not saying the men are evil. i was one of them that happened to be blessed. the life is evil because people die, families get destroyed because of a lifestyle i lived it. i know.
How do you feel about your past? Does it haunt your? Are you proud? Any regrets?
I am not proud of my past. my wife will tell you that i do have rough nights sleeping at times. regrets? i would have preferred not to have gone through it, but i just move on and try to use my experiences to benefit others.
How did faith play into your life while you were in the mafia?
I left the life because i fell in love with a christian girl we are now married 28 years. God used her to get to me. saved my life, preserved my freedom. very blessed. i love the Lord for what he has done for me.
If you had it all to do over again, would you make the same choices? Was the lifestyle worth all the trouble you went through?
Life on the street and in the mob is a dead end. prison or death is the way it will end today. i would not go into that life, knowing what i know now. i try my best to drum this into the head of our young people, gangbangers. Not worth it for me or for anyone in the life. Trust me.
Where’s Hoffa at?
They will NEVER find Hoffa’s body. trust me on that one.
How good is your mom’s cooking? She make good spaghetti?
My mom and grandmother were the best. grandma’s meatballs cannot be duplicated and mom could whip up a delicious meal in minutes. miss them both! but my wife is a great cook. blessed!
What’s your very best life advice?
For me, it’s a faith advise. make Jesus, the only man’s man to ever walk the earth, your hero. emulate Him as best as you can and you will benefit as I have.