Michael Franzese was born ‘into the business’, as the son of a notorious New York mafia boss. Working his way up through the ranks over the years he became a caporegime (Captain) in 1980, a position he was to stay in for 15 years.
Heavily involved in the gasoline tax scams of the 1980s, Michael experienced the wealth and luxury of a gangster lifestyle - generating up to $8 million dollars a week at his peak.
At the age of 35, Michael was named by Fortune magazine as one of the most powerful mob bosses in America. But he wants people to realise what a precarious life mobsters live. Speaking to Justin Brierley, he explained that, of the 50, “47 of them are now dead and two are doing life in prison”.
Michael was, as he describes, “at the top of my mob game” when, during a film shoot in Florida, he met the woman who would be the catalyst for him turning his life around, Camille Garcia.
“She’s from southern California – there’s no mob out there of any consequence. She didn’t know anything of that life. She saw The Godfather once; to her it was just a movie, a myth. As far as she was concerned, I was a movie producer.”
Michael was smitten, but knew his life stood in “direct contradiction to what her and her mom believed and I respected their faith”. He realised he would need to make some changes in order to win his girl.
He married Camille, and moved out to the West Coast with the idea of doing a couple of years in prison and then keeping his head down. “I figured, maybe after 10 or 12 years the guys in New York would forget about me and I’d live happily ever after in California. That was my plan.”
Smiling, Michael said, “Unfortunately, someone above had a different plan!”
He went to prison for 5 years, and then was out on parole for 13 months in LA. He describes those months as “a horrible time in our lives. I couldn’t get my life together, we had people looking to hurt us, Life magazine wrote a huge story…the way they wrote the article it was like I was becoming a major informant.”
Michael ended up violating his parole and was given the maximum four years - three years of which he spent in the hold.
He really struggled with the isolation: “I was desperate…I turned to the Lord and looked for that relationship. I was challenging God at that point. I wanted to know if he was real, and so, in reading the Bible, I started to read it as if I was preparing for my trial.
“I came out of there believing with all my heart that the Bible is God’s Word and that Jesus was my risen Saviour, based upon what I saw to be the evidence that was very solid. I studied while I was in there – I had nothing but time on my hands, 24-7; what else was I gonna do? It was a time God really used to grow my knowledge and to really change my heart.”
Today, Michael uses his former experiences to benefit others - from business executives to at-risk young people. He tells everyone he meets that “they can change. But change is temporary; transformation through Christ is permanent.”
Michael spends a lot of time with young people, recognising how blinkered their view of a lifestyle of crime can be. While they see the glamour, riches and wealth in films like The Godfather, he challenges them to look beyond those things: “did you see the end of the movie? Who went to jail, who got killed…”
Michael is also in demand as a speaker within churches. He realises his story can be attractive for people to invite those who would never set foot inside a church to hear the gospel message to, as they are often intrigued to listen to a mobster!
As he recognises: “If God can not only forgive me, but turn my entire life around, then he can do that for anyone.”