Michael Franzese has overseen a multimillion-dollar New York City gambling and loan-sharking ring, made tens of millions of dollars working with the Russian Mafia, and admittedly has been involved in some violent activity.
Early last month, Franzese stopped in Frederick for a weekend.
But not to worry. He came at the behest of senior pastor Paul Mundey, who invited the former La Cosa Nostra capo to kick off the Frederick Church of the Bretheran's fall "Totally Transformed" speaker series.
When Jesus said he came for the sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes and thieves, apparently that included made men in the Columbo crime family as well.
"This is no ordinary guest, with an ordinary background, he really was a member of the mob," Mundey told his congregation as he introduced Franzese. "He comes to us with a past that few of us could relate to, but with a new identity, thank God, a new identity as a brother in the Lord."
Mundey didn't mean "new identity" as in the witness protection program, but the born-again kind. After a video about his story, Franzese quoted the rapper Coolio who sang, "there ain't no gangster living in paradise," which he said he now understood to be true.
He recounted the details of his underworld dealings ("Mob 101," he called it), meeting the woman who re-introduced him to Christianity, and finally how 23 months reading the bible in prison isolation led him to renounce his old life.
"It's almost impossible to believe," said Jay Combs, who attended the service and bought a copy of Franzese's book "Blood Covenant."
"I found it extremely powerful. That's a guy who's literally been on the other side, was broken, and is now doing good things with his life."
"I didn't know what to expect," Derrice Combs said. "He's such a bright, humble person. To hear first hand about a world we don't know at all was something. He gave amazing testimony. A great story of redemption."
Franzese, 57, is the son of legendary New York organized crime boss, John "Sonny" Franzese, 91, and still serving time, by the way. A longtime associate of John Gotti, Michael Franzese in the 1980s ranked as "one of the biggest earners the mob had seen since Al Capone," according to a Vanity Fair article in 1991. He was also the youngest individual named in a Fortune magazine survey of "The Fifty Biggest Mafia Bosses," ranking No. 18, five slots behind Gotti. Franzese even earned a brief mention in "Goodfellas."
"Scorsese gets it right," Franzese told the Church of the Bretheran audience, mentioning "Donnie Brasco" as another accurate cinematic portrayal of New York Italian mob life. He said, however, forget about Tony Soprano: "He'd be in the trunk of a car before his first psychiatrist's appointment was over."
(Franzese added later that "The Godfather," of course, remains the favorite movie of mobsters themselves. "Let's face it, it made us look great." He pointed out that Don Corleone's infamous enforcer, Luca Brasi, was played by "one of us," Lenny Montana, a friend of the Columbo family that, according to Franzese, approved the script and casting.)
As a young man, Franzese hadn't intended to join the family business, enrolling in pre-med at Hofstra University. He was a jock in school, admitting jokingly that having a prominent mobster for a father helped his batting average in particular.
"My father never missed a game. He'd show up in pinstripe suit at my high school baseball games in a black Lincoln or Cadillac surrounded by three or four tough-looking guys," Franzese said. "He was impossible to miss. It was pretty hard for an umpire to see him and then call me out on strike three."
Franzese loved, still loves, his father, and when his dad was sentenced to Leavenworth on racketeering charges, he decided to quit college to make money and connections to win his release. His father didn't want him to leave school, but supported him when he did.
"He told me if you're going to be on the street, do it the right way," Franzese said. "He didn't say anything else, but I knew what he meant. He told me to wait for a call. Two weeks later, I got a call from a guy in the Columbo family telling me when and where we should meet."
He became a "made guy" at 24.
"There were six of us who got made together," Franzese said. "The other five are all dead. None from natural causes."
Dark-haired, self-assured, trim, dressed in dark jeans, shirt and dark jacket, Franzese speaks directly in a heavy Brooklyn accent.
"For 1712 years, I lived it every day, lived in complete contradiction to the laws of God and the laws of man," he said. "My brother's been a drug addict for 23 years and my sister died of an overdose. I didn't have an excuse; came to the Lord kicking and fighting the whole way."
Before he met his future wife, Camille Garcia, in the mid-'80s, he'd beaten five indictments.
Among many illegal and semi-legit businesses he operated, Franzese had begun producing movies. His last, a forgettable film called "Knights of the City," was made in Florida and imported 50 dancers from Los Angeles, one of whom was the born-again 19-year-old he eventually married.
"I met her pastor, who was from Tennessee," he said, shaking his head. "I'd never met anybody who wasn't from Brooklyn."
A committed Christian, Garcia convinced Franzese to accept a five-year racketeering sentence in 1985 and try to mend his ways.
However, it wasn't until a second five-year stint, while locked alone in a 6- by 8-foot cell for his own safety, that Franzese had his conversion experience.
"I was going through a rough stretch, and I guess the guard could see that," Franzese said. "I can tell you the night, Nov. 13, 1991, 11:30 p.m., He passed me a Bible through the door. I opened it and the first thing I read was, 'When a man's ways are pleasing to the Lord ... even his enemies live at peace with him.'
"All I can tell you is I was utterly hopeless at that moment and that gave me hope. Something happened in my heart. I read the Bible and made so many notes alongside the scriptures and in the margins that when I got out there were more of my words in there than anything else. My wife still has it at home."
The second five-year term he served stemmed from a parole violation, which he said was enforced because he refused to fully cooperate with federal investigators and testify against former associates.
It may be what's kept him alive. So far.
Former FBI agent Bernie Welsh thinks Franzese "will get whacked" some day. So does former NewYork prosecutor Edward McDonald, who has said he doesn't believe Franzese's "life expectancy is very substantial."
Yet, here he is, regularly meeting with college and pro athletes about the pitfalls of gambling and with church groups about the possibility of redemption.
"When I got out of prison the last time, I was trying to make money any way I could and nothing was working. It was strange." Franzese said. "The NBA had come into prison and made a video with me about gambling that was really well done and the NCAA, Major League Baseball started calling me. That led to more speaking engagements and finally, about six years ago, I accepted this full-time."
Franzese said flatly he doesn't know how to convince those like him to change if they're not ready. Except that to move forward, it takes both feet.
"You can't keep one foot in that life and one foot out," he said. "I stayed in California where my wife is from and don't go to any clubs or bars anymore. You don't need someone seeing you hanging out someplace, making a phone call and deciding to make a name for themselves. I'm going to focus what I'm doing today.
"Am I out of the woods? No, you can never say that. I'm a made guy. That's forever, too."
This is one in a series of stories that goes behind the scenes to explore the unusual, memorable, quirky things people do and go through in the course of their lives.
ON THE WEB
Michael Franzese's website: http://www.michaelfranzese.com/watch.php