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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.
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."