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Fate of a Jailed Mobster: Films, Fortune or a Bullet? : Mafia: Michael Franzese, an ex-Colombo family capo, says he is ‘born-again’ and hopes for a Hollywood career.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was not long ago that Michael Franzese had it all.

Money? He was a multimillionaire, drove a couple of luxury cars and lived in a $3-million Westwood mansion. Glamour? He ran his own Hollywood film company, was an executive producer with four movies under his belt and had plans for more. Love? He had fallen for--and married--a dancer who had appeared in one of his films.

And power? Michael Franzese was a capo in New York’s Colombo organized crime family, a position that put a small but ferocious army at his disposal.

Today, Franzese, 41, lives under 24-hour-a-day lockdown at the Federal Correctional Institution in Englewood, Colo. When he gets out in a couple of years, he could easily end up with a bullet in the head.

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That is because Franzese has done what few other Mafia captains would ever dare: In interviews and in a published memoir, he has talked about the mob. He revealed his organized crime affiliation in open court, and he testified against a former associate--all while declining to disappear and enter the relative safety of the witness protection program.

He says he quit La Cosa Nostra, and he cut an extraordinary deal with authorities, one that gives the government a share of the future earnings of a mobster who once stole as much as $1 billion for the Mafia.

Franzese says this time he will make that money honestly--as a Hollywood film producer. He admits he started out in movies because they gave him a way to reinvest some of his illegal earnings, but he took to the business with a passion. And once he has done his time, Franzese says, he wants nothing more than to come home to Los Angeles to start again.

But even that is just half the story. In fact, some experts believe that Franzese is calculating his moves with stunning sophistication. Although he has testified for the government, he has never fingered a member of the Mafia. He has just published the story of his life, admitting to many crimes but denying that he ever killed anyone; murder is one of two major felonies not covered by his plea agreement. He has agreed to pay $14.7 million in fines, but some experts say he has millions more stashed away.

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If Franzese, who was baptized as a “born-again” Christian at a Westwood church in 1989, can keep his record clean, he will never serve another day in prison after 1994. If he can persuade the mob that he never hurt that organization--or if, as some suspect, he already has cut a secret deal with his Mafia colleagues--Franzese may even be allowed to live.

Only Franzese knows for sure, and in several interviews with The Times, he repeatedly denied that he has worked out a plan with the Mafia.

“That’s the most ridiculous and insane thing I’ve ever heard,” Franzese said in one interview from prison. “I know some people say that, but it’s crazy.”

His attorney, Bruce Kelton of Los Angeles, echoes Franzese. “Deals like that just aren’t done,” said Kelton, who used to serve as the assistant chief of the Los Angeles Organized Crime Strike Force. “These people (in the mob) are paranoid. They don’t make deals like that.”

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Still, Franzese has conned a lot of people in his life, and some who have known him a long time believe he may be dealing with both sides. Edward McDonald, attorney-in-charge of a now-defunct Organized Crime Strike Force in Brooklyn, said in a television interview that he believes Franzese paid the mob $10 million for his life.

Some prosecutors and law enforcement experts disagree. They take Franzese at his word. But a few others say they smell a payoff, too.

“My instinct tells me that in all likelihood, Franzese got official clearance from the New York organized crime families before he said any of this,” said Ray Jermyn, chief of the rackets bureau for the Suffolk County district attorney’s office. “The quid pro quo would have been money.”

If it is true that Franzese is playing both sides of the fence, it is a dangerous game. If he has miscalculated or misjudged any player’s sincerity, it will cost him dearly.

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“If he ever testifies against anyone of substance, they would definitely whack him out,” said Bernie Welsh, a retired FBI agent who has known and investigated Franzese for years. “No question. They may even whack him anyway.”

That is hardly news to Franzese. He grew up a child of organized crime. His father, John (Sonny) Franzese, was a top figure in the Colombo family and has spent much of his life in prison. Michael’s “uncles” were mobsters; so were his friends and business associates from the time he was a youngster.

Michael Franzese has told his story many times--in court, in depositions and in his autobiography, “Quitting the Mob.” In a series of interviews from prison, he repeated it and elaborated eagerly, answering every question without hesitation, telling how a onetime premed student became one of the biggest moneymakers in the history of American organized crime.

On Oct. 31, 1975, Franzese says, he joined the mob. He pricked his finger and mixed his blood with other Mafiosos. He swore the omerta --vowing never to betray them or disclose his membership in La Cosa Nostra.

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To do so, he knew, was to court death.

“I knew what the oath was,” Franzese said. “I took it.”

As an up-and-coming mobster, he said, he dabbled in loan-sharking and union corruption--buying union cooperation for a New York condo project. He said he paid union officials roughly $400,000 to stay away from the development, in the process saving the builders $6 million to $8 million in labor costs.

Franzese walked away with a $2-million fee for “general contracting.”

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But that was just the warm-up. Franzese’s coup de grace came in the early 1980s, when he oversaw a gasoline-tax evasion scam that government officials say robbed taxpayers of $1 billion and may have netted Franzese $1 million a week at its height. To do that, government investigators say, Franzese and a partner set up a chain of dummy gasoline wholesale corporations, one owned by the next.

When authorities came to collect gas taxes, they would find that the businesses amounted to nothing more than a corporate letterhead. The paper trail led from one company to the next and to Panama, where the top dummy corporations were based. It took investigators months to wade through the documents.

In the meantime, Franzese and his partners sold millions of gallons of gasoline tax-free, undercutting other sellers and skimming $60 million to $100 million a month in tax money, according to some experts, including Dary Matera, co-author of Franzese’s book.

Franzese admits to his part in that scheme and many other crimes. He says he regrets having committed them. He steadfastly denies one thing, however: the suggestion that he ever killed people or ordered others to do it.

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“I’m not saying to you that I didn’t have knowledge of that type of thing,” he said. “But I never killed anybody.”

Franzese knows that flies in the face of mob history. As he says, joining the organization has long required a recruit to commit a murder.

But Franzese says the requirement was “waived” in his case. There was a burst of Mafia recruiting in the early 1970s, he says, and the rules were suspended while the families restored their criminal organizations to full strength. In addition, Franzese says, his father may have pulled strings to keep his son from having to kill anyone.

Federal agents and other law enforcement experts are unconvinced. They can offer no proof that Franzese committed murder, but there is at least one case in which some experts believe that Franzese may have pulled the trigger.

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Larry (Champagne) Carrozza--a Brooklyn embalmer with a taste for the good life, including his trademark champagne--once was Franzese’s best friend. They drank together and gambled in Las Vegas together. Carrozza was the godfather of three of Franzese’s children, and he was the godfather of one of Carrozza’s.

But in 1983, Franzese learned that Carrozza, a married man, was having an affair with Franzese’s sister and had become involved with drugs. Franzese said the mob had discovered both and had ordered Carrozza’s assassination. In his book, Franzese says he tried to warn his friend, but that Carrozza ignored him.

Carrozza’s body was found on May 20, 1983. He had been shot with a single bullet behind the right ear. There was no sign of a struggle. Police believe he was killed by someone he knew and trusted.

Franzese says he did not do it. Some agents and prosecutors wonder about that.

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“There’s definitely a violent side to Franzese, and he definitely had the motive and the opportunity to do that killing,” Jermyn said.

Franzese’s autobiography acknowledges that many people blamed him for Carrozza’s death. In a section of the book written by his co-author, Matera says “it was widely believed among law enforcement officials and Mafia insiders that Michael killed his friend upon his father’s order.”

Franzese has never been charged in that or any other killing.

When Franzese was indicted in December, 1985, it was on an array of other charges related to his enterprise. A Brooklyn-based task force charged him with racketeering, extortion, embezzlement and conspiracy. In Florida, he faced another 65 counts of tax evasion, part of a 177-count indictment that included several other people.

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So Franzese cut a deal with the government, pleading guilty to two of the federal charges and all 65 of the state counts, even though that meant a prison sentence. Later, he agreed to testify against Norby Walters, a sports agent who was charged with illegally signing college athletes.

Within weeks of testifying against Walters, Franzese was freed from prison, having served less than four years of his 10-year sentence. He was sent back in 1991 after admitting to a pair of probation violations--failing to file income tax returns for two years that he was in prison and improperly endorsing a check.

Walters was found guilty, but the conviction was overturned on appeal.

Franzese has only testified in one other trial: that of a janitor charged with leaking information to him from a grand jury investigation. He has never uttered a word in court against a former mob colleague, and he has completed his commitment to the government, so he will never have to testify against anyone again.

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Franzese also had to forfeit $5 million in assets--though the government has struggled to get that money--and he promised to turn over a cut of his future earnings. That unusual provision means that the government is taking a share of the profits from Franzese’s autobiography and stands to collect a cut from any movie about his life.

But what happened to the rest of the money that Franzese helped steal, hundreds of millions of dollars in gasoline taxes that have never been recovered?

Much of it probably went to the Colombo family. But there was also Franzese’s share, which some experts say could easily have topped $25 million.

Some of that went into his movie companies. One, Cammy-Co. Productions, is based in Los Angeles; another, Miami Gold, was headquartered in Miami and was responsible for producing a feature film there. And some money surely went to pay for his lavish expenses.

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Still, conservative estimates suggest that at least $5 million to $6 million is unaccounted for. It could be out of the country or buried somewhere, and as long as Franzese refrains from digging it up until after 1993, when the statute of limitations runs out on the plea arrangement, it would be his to keep.

“They say I have all this money,” said Franzese, who emphatically denies having any of it and blames the persistent rumors on overactive imaginations and uncorroborated testimony by one of his former associates. “Well, where is it? Someone show it to me.”

Franzese insists he wants a new life. He wants to return home to Los Angeles, to his wife and their three children--he has three more by a previous marriage--and he wants to make more movies.

Franzese says his conversion is because of Camille Garcia, an Anaheim dancer who appeared in one of his movies, a break-dancing feature called “Knights of the City.” His voice, normally rough and direct, softens noticeably when “Cammy” comes up, and he says that what he wants most is to shorten his time in prison and return to her side.

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Even Franzese’s prosecutors notice the way his wife has captivated him. In fact, his love for her is the one thing about Franzese’s life that no one takes issue with.

“Cammy changed my life,” Franzese said. “She’s the reason for all of this.”

In 1989, just before Franzese was scheduled to return to prison for a pair of probation violations, he joined his wife in being baptized a “born-again” Christian.

The ceremony, held at the Westwood Hills Christian Church, marked what Franzese says was the final symbolic break with his past. As dozens of parishioners looked on, unaware of Franzese’s past, Pastor Myron Taylor gently lowered the former mobster into the church’s baptismal “grave,” cleansing him of his sins and welcoming him into a new life.

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“Everything I’ve heard from Michael tells me that he’s sincere,” said Taylor, who has talked with Franzese at length about his past. “I understand the people who are suspicious. I don’t blame them. That’s their job. But I still believe that there is something in human nature that can change. I think Michael has done that.”

Since the baptism, many members of the Westwood congregation have learned about Franzese’s background, and a few have expressed some jitters, Taylor concedes.

“Somebody has said: ‘You know, somebody could come in here and shoot the lot of us,’ ” Taylor said. “Really, though, there has been great joy at his transformation.”

In the grittier confines of squad rooms and prosecutors’ offices, the reaction is less lofty, the players a little harder to convince.

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In early 1991, Franzese was back in New York, in custody, being briefed by detectives and prosecutors in another criminal case. Jermyn and one of his colleagues spent several days talking to Franzese, grilling him about what he knew, going over the old history, listening to him describe his new life and beliefs.

“At the end of that, both of us came to the same conclusion,” Jermyn said. “This was just one more mask of all the masks that he has put on. You could tell by the look in his eyes, by his body language, that this was the same Michael Franzese we knew in 1985. My impression, my honest impression, is that he hasn’t changed one iota.”


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