After more than 15 years in organized crime—as a soldier and later as a fast-rising capo in New York City's Colombo crime family—Michael Franzese sat down with his father, onetime underboss John (Sonny) Franzese, and had what Michael describes as "almost a bit of a showdown."
That was 1985. Sonny, then 65, had served 11 years for bank robbery, and Michael, 32, was feeling the pressure of being pursued by the law. He had been indicted—though never convicted—five times between '73 and '84, and he would soon be facing federal racketeering and tax-evasion charges. Michael was a rising star in the underworld, a prolific money-earner who was staking out new territories of mob influence in the movie, financial service and wholesale gas businesses.
In his discussion with his father, Michael said, "Dad, you're an old warhorse. This was your life. You say, 'Hey, I lived this way all my life; I may as well die this way.' As for me, I'm young. I got a wife. I got three kids. I'm not going to go to jail for the rest of my life. I'm going to try to do the best I can to straighten out the next half of my life."
A year later, Michael pleaded guilty to the racketeering charges and was sentenced to 10 years in jail. Before entering prison, he became a born-again Christian. He agreed to pay $14.7 million in fines and spent 41 months in jail before being paroled in 1989. Defying the unwritten rules of the underworld, which hold that membership is for life, he walked away. Franzese, who is living on the West Coast and is in the film business, has since written a book, Quilting the Mob, which is scheduled for publication in February.
"I left this life because I realized it's no good," says Franzese, who was approached by SI in mid-October. "You can't be a Christian and be in organized crime."
Franzese talked to SI about the events leading up to the January day in 1983 when he and the Reverend Al Sharpton escorted the undercover FBI agent calling himself Victor Quintana into Don King's offices for the purpose of setting up a fight copromotion.
Franzese says he had no idea that Quintana was an FBI agent. He says that he worked for months in 1982 "qualifying" Victor—spending time with him to determine if he had the money to join in a copromotion and was safe to do business with. Franzese says that he finally decided to arrange the King-Quintana meeting only after he had gotten clearance from King's mob associates in Cleveland and had what he thought was proof that Quintana had a substantial amount of cash.
Franzese recalls that he first met Quintana in Atlantic City. He says that on that occasion he and his father listened as Quintana told of wanting to do a copromotion with King. "My father told him I would get him to King," says Franzese. "Then my father and I discussed it. I said, 'Dad, before we make that step, let's really find out what [Quintana] is all about.' " At this point, Michael Franzese said, he went to Colombo family headquarters in Brooklyn to present the idea to other members of the Colombo family.
Says Michael, "I go to my family and let them know about this deal and told them, 'Look, if I qualify [Quintana], then there's money in it for the family.' "
The Colombo interest in a boxing promotion, Franzese says, was not motivated by a desire to fix fights, though he concedes that mobsters generally like to gamble and they seek inside information on sporting events. Asked why the family wanted to get involved in boxing, Franzese replies, "To get an income out of it would have been the reason." At the time, Franzese was in the wholesale gas supply business—"It was legitimate, except I was stealing all the [sales] tax money," he says—and so he had a "tremendous amount of money," and he viewed a boxing promotion "as a way to clean up some money."
Franzese says he had no doubt that he could set up the meeting with King. He says he knew King would do business with an organized-crime figure because, "I was told he was a player, and that he had done business in the past. Word was around. He's the guy you thought of because you knew he was big time." He asked members of his own family about King, Franzese says, and they told him, "He's got people in Cleveland."
Franzese decided to ask Tom (Corky) Vastola, a soldier in the DeCavalcante family, based in New Jersey, for help. "My father had known Corky," says Franzese. "Corky told me he knew King pretty well, and if I needed anything, to let him know."
Franzese says he arranged a meeting between Vastola and Quintana. Vastola, Franzese says, asked Quintana how much money he had, and Quintana told him, "Three million dollars. Cash. Right now." Shortly after that meeting, Franzese says, he demanded proof from Quintana that he had that kind of money: "He showed me paperwork...where he showed significant deposits into the account." Quintana also had Franzese call an Illinois bank, where the FBI had set up a paper account; Franzese says he was told by bank officials that Quintana had $15 million in that bank. "I said to myself, O.K. Must be for real."
Franzese then called Vastola and asked him to clear the meeting through the mob in Cleveland. Soon after, Franzese says, Vastola told him, "I got through to Cleveland, and whatever we want to do with King is O.K."
All that remained was to arrange the meeting with King. For this, says Franzese, he found a willing ally in Sharpton. According to Franzese, Sharpton had worked with him "when I was unionizing the security guards at all the major Atlantic City casinos, and Sharpton assisted me." Franzese says he told Sharpton that he and Quintana wanted to meet King, and Franzese says Sharpton replied, "I know King real well. We're brothers. I'll get you to meet him."
And that, says Franzese, was how the Jan. 12, 1983, meeting came about. When he, Quintana, Sharpton and the informant Joseph Spinelli calls Bobby arrived for that meeting, Franzese says, he went into King's office alone. The other three men would join him there in a few minutes. Franzese told King, "Don, I know there's a lot of ways to make money with these things, but right now we play it straight with these fellas. Don't tell them how they're going to make money. Don't explain to them other than the fact that we're going to do a straight promotion. For all I know they could be FBI agents."
At one point, says Franzese, he told King that Quintana had $15 million. "He [King] was happy," says Franzese, who also quotes King as saying, "Hey, we can make some tremendous money here. We can do a lot of promotions." Franzese says he told King that he was a 50-50 partner with Quintana's company and said, "Don, this has got to be a profitable deal for all of us." To which King, according to Franzese, said there were "a lot of ways" to make money on such a deal.
Franzese did not learn that Quintana was an FBI agent until Quintana testified against him at a subsequent trial. And, Franzese adds, he thinks the FBI was on the right track in pursuing him and King.
Says Franzese, "They were right next to King. They were right where they wanted to be. As a matter of fact, I think they got a bonus because it was me and King. An organized-crime figure introduced Quintana to the top boxing promoter. The theory was correct. King would have done business with guys in organized crime."
Franzese was a fast-rising capo and moneymaker for the Colombo family.
Quintana strapped on a "wire" before going with Franzese to meet King.