Friday, January 27, 2006

God Vs. the Mafia

Friends of ours: Michael Franzese, Colombo Crime Family, John "Sonny" Franzese

For fans of The Godfather and Goodfellas, it may be an offer you can't refuse: an invitation to dine with an ex-Mafia don. Lexington's Porter Memorial Baptist Church officials predict 1,000 men will pay $7 each to eat a Fazoli's Italian dinner tonight with Michael Franzese, a former high-ranking member of the Colombo crime family. Afterward, Franzese, 53, will speak about his journey from prison to the pulpit and the public-speaking circuit.

Trent Snyder, a Porter Memorial minister and a former Lexington police officer, says Franzese's story proves God's power to transform lives. "You can be a sinner and involved in the worst crimes in life and if you truly surrender your life, Christ can turn that around and use that to glorify him," he said.

Franzese's criminal past is well-documented. His 1985 indictment on criminal conspiracy charges made the front page of The New York Times. In 1986, Fortune Magazine ranked him No. 18 on its list of "50 biggest Mafia bosses." Life Magazine, in 1987, described him as "one of the biggest money earners in the history of the Mafia." Before his 1985 arrest, he allegedly helped steal more than $1 billion in gasoline tax revenues. When he wasn't stealing millions, he produced B movies such as Knights of the City and Mausoleum.

After his conviction on federal charges, Franzese cut a deal with the feds. He spent seven years behind bars. Law enforcement officials were skeptical that Franzese would ever give up crime, and when he became a born-again Christian, many viewed it as just another scam. "I carry a lot of baggage and it's always going to be there," Franzese said in a telephone interview. "People have every right to be skeptical." But he says he has truly changed.

The pivotal moment was in the mid-1980s, when he fell in love with an evangelical Christian who danced in one of his movies. "She had a tremendous effect on me," he said. "She planted the seed, and there's no doubt God used her as a catalyst to turn my life around." He married the woman, Cammy Garcia, after divorcing his previous wife. They have been married for 20 years.

Unlike most underworld figures, Franzese has never kept a low profile. He turned down chances to be in the witness protection program and welcomed the chance to appear on TV news shows. His autobiography, Quitting the Mob, was published in 1992. His latest book, Blood Covenant, was released in 2003. In addition to ministry, Franzese speaks out against gambling and meets with National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball players to warn them of the risks. He has also spoken on gambling at about 150 college campuses across America, including the University of Kentucky.

Quitting the mob was a risky move. "My dad (mobster John "Sonny" Franzese) didn't speak to me for 10 years," he says. There were death threats. But Franzese said he survived by trusting God and refusing to squeal. "I never put anybody in prison. At one point in time, they realized I wasn't a threat."

As he talks about his faith, Franzese mentions the Apostle Paul, another tough guy who preached and spent time behind bars. "It just shows you," Franzese said. "Nobody's beyond redemption and fulfilling God's purpose."

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