Testimony Of Colombo Capo Michael Franzese

"Before there was John Gotti, there was Sonny Franzese," someone once said, and we concur.

Former Colombo capo Michael Franzese
Former Colombo capo Michael Franzese said he was made on Oct. 31, 1975.

On Long Island—especially the Long Island of the 1960s, decades before Amy Fisher shot Mary Joe at Joe Buttofuoco's Massapequa home, making all us Long Island natives (aka Long Islanders) look like jerks—and especially after Ernest (Ernie the Hawk) Rupolo's stabbed and bullet-riddled body was recovered from the beach at Jamaica Bay, Queens in August 1964 (his feet had been weighted down with cement blocks, the proverbial concrete shoes), most Long Islanders generally believed that John Sonny Franzese was the major Mafia power in the Northeast United States. 

Never mind that Sonny most likely had nothing whatsoever to do with Rupolo and wasn't found guilty for it at the conclusion of the 1967 trial. Nevertheless, Rupolo's murder prefaced an unprecedented legal onslaught against Franzese, with prosecutors from Manhattan, Queens, Nassau, and the Justice Department’s Eastern District of New York all targeting him. Three years after the Hawk's end, Franzese was buried in cases—for Rupolo—for running a $10 million bookmaking ring in Manhattan—for conspiring to rob banks across the country—and for a home invasion targeting an Oceanside jukebox company owner. Ultimately, as the 1960s drew to a conclusion, he was found guilty of masterminding bank robberies and sentenced to 50 years in prison.

(As for who was responsible for ending Ernie the Hawk, Vito Genovese is believed to have passed the order. According to the Wikipedia version of the story, the Rupolo hit was a case of revenge being served cold. Decades prior, in 1934, the Hawk had testified against Genovese in the Ferdinand Boccia murder trial. Boccia had had the temerity to ask for the $35,000 that Vito owed him. The 35 large was Boccia's share of a $150,000 payoff resulting from a scheme to cheat a wealthy gambler. At some point, Vito Genovese decided to simply kill Boccia and keep the $35,000. On September 19, 1934, Genovese and five associates did just that, shooting Boccia dead inside a coffee shop in Brooklyn. This was the case that sent Vito Genovese scurrying to Italy.)

Sonny Franzese, who lived with his wife and seven children in Roslyn , on the north shore of Long Island, a half hour from the city, was feared and respected (but mostly feared). He was identified in newspaper reports as a doting father who earned his keep as a Mafia manager who killed lots of people. (He reportedly coated his fingertips in nail polish, his method for ensuring he never left behind a single fingerprint.)

Franzese would claim he owned a dry-cleaning store in Brooklyn -- which didn't really explain at all how he was able to host all those lavish parties at the Copacabana nightclub in Manhattan that major Hollywood luminaries of the day-- including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.-- were known to attend. A boxing fan, Sonny also palled around with Jake LaMotta and Rocky Marciano, to whom Franzese at one point in life bore an unearthly physical resemblance.

At his 1960s peak, Franzese was among the top mobsters living on Long Island, where he was considered the crime czar from Kings County to Suffolk County— the rackets that fed his more-than-considerable income included bookmaking, loan sharking, and the extortion of nightclubs and bars. One of his later efforts allegedly was extracting payoffs from pornographic peep show suppliers. (Though not one of these allegations ever led to criminal charges being filed against him.)

We note all this by way of prologue (because Sonny is a fascinating character who we will write about any chance we get but also) to provide context for the Franzese that this story focuses on, Michael (who said that he formally became a made Mafia member on Oct. 31, 1975). Back in the 1980s, Michael Franzese reportedly was worth north of $25 million when he was a Colombo capo operating on the street. A brief sketch of Michael at his apogee would note that unlike your stereotypical Mafia capo (endlessly sipping espresso in a Brooklyn social club, etc.), Franzese was a high-powered Hollywood player who lived in a $3-million mansion on the West Coast. He was an executive producer at the helm of his own film company, and had four complete films under his belt, and was working on many additional productions.

Rupolo on Queens beach in summer of 1964. (Image is first page of a Life cover story on Ernie the Hawk Rupolo murder/trial of John Sonny Franzese.)

Then in December 1985, a Brooklyn-based taskforce charged him with racketeering, extortion, embezzlement and conspiracy. In Florida, he faced an additional 65 counts of tax evasion, part of a 177-count indictment that included several others.

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.

In 1992, while living under 24-hour-a-day lockdown at the Federal Correctional Institution in Englewood, Colo, Franzese did the unthinkable. He didn't try to escape nor did he get into deadly brawls for more phone time, etc. He granted media interviews, including to the Los Angeles Times, which noted

"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." .... 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.

How exactly did Michael get out of the mob without getting a bullet behind one of his ears? Franzese has said that he believes his father may have pulled strings to keep him from getting whacked. 

An alternative theory was posed by Edward McDonald, who once upon a time ran the Organized Crime Strike Force in Brooklyn. In a television interview, the former investigator said that he believed Franzese paid $10 million to get out with his life.

What follows is the content of what Michael said when he testified before Congress in the mid-1990s.

Among the topics of discussion was the early 1980s gasoline-tax evasion scam that robbed taxpayers of $1 billion and may have netted Franzese $1 million personally a week at its height. To do that, 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 companies that they believed were large business entities were simply names on paper letterhead. The trail led from one company to the next—and then to Panama, where the top dummy corporations were based. 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.

As for his Russian partners, Franzese has said he found them to be very intelligent, "possessing remarkable business instincts that they would not hesitate to use for illegal gain. As a result of their experiences living in Communist Russia, they have little respect for United States law and little fear of American prisons." 

Gasoline wasn't their only shared business interest. The Russians "would frequently approach me with other illegal business ventures and were eager to share in illegal deals I would propose to them, such as loan sharking, insurance fraud and securities fraud."

Franzese admitted to his part in the schemes and many other crimes. He has said he regrets having committed them. Franzese has always alleged that he never killed anyone and never ordered others to do such dirty work. (Larry "Champagne" Carrozza notwithstanding. We will get to Larry shortly.)

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

Father and son: Sonny and Michael Franzese
Father and (adopted) son: Sonny and Michael Franzese 

In the early days, when Michael Franzese first began to share his life story, many found that part of it especially hard to swallow—the part about no involvement in murders. Joining the mob historically meant you had to kill someone. It was black and white: To get a button you had to be a killer. There was no other way in. Well, Franzese had the answer to that one too, saying the requirement was “waived” in his case. He also further noted that in the early 1970s, the rules about killing to get into the Mafia were suspended while the families were busily focusing on restoring their criminal organizations to full strength after the crazy 1960s, when wiseguys certainly didn't do themselves any favors with all the infighting and killing. (Following the tumultuous 1960s, things were getting pretty hairy in general, with mob informants popping up left and right, which caused boss Carlo Gambino to contemplate a major consolidation that would've turned the five families into one family. Would Carlo have done it? Absolutely, we think, had he been a little younger and in somewhat better physical health.)

Federal agents and other law enforcement experts never offered a lick of hard proof nailing Franzese to any murders. Still, there is a strong belief that Michael played some kind of role in at least one killing. Larry (Champagne) Carrozza was a Brooklyn embalmer who loved the good life, especially imbibing his trademark beverage (along with healthy dollops of cocaine). Carrozza was once Michael Franzese’s best friend. (Carrozza was godfather to three of Franzese’s children, Michael was godfather to one of Carrozza’s.) Larry and Mikey drank and gambled together, sometimes in Las Vegas, and seemed to have a blast for many years. The good times between the two ended in 1983, when Franzese learned that the married Carrozza was having a fling with Franzese’s sister and that the two were involved in drugs. 

Carrozza’s body was found on May 20, 1983. He had been shot once behind the right ear.

Franzese said the mob ordered Carrozza’s death. In one of his books, Franzese even alleges he sought to warn his former buddy, but Carrozza paid him no heed.

Larry (Champagne) Carrozza, who wound up.....

(Here is a good place to note that in 1989, Franzese and his wife got baptized--and joined the ranks of “born-again” Christians. The ceremony, held at the Westwood Hills Christian Church, marked what Franzese said was his final symbolic break with his past. Pastor Myron Taylor gently lowered the former mobster into the church’s baptismal “grave,” and Michael believed he was completely cleansed of all the sins he committed during mob life.)

Franzese was freed from prison after serving less than four years of a 10-year sentence. (Though he was sent back in 1991 after admitting to two probation violations--failing to file income tax returns for two years that he was in prison and improperly endorsing a check.)

Franzese testified in one other trial only, which involved a janitor charged with leaking information to the Colombos from a grand jury investigation.

Larry (Champagne) Carrozza's grave
... here after he chose the wrong woman to have a cocaine-fueled affair with.....

He also testified before Congress, and that is the topic of the rest of this story. The following is the testimony Michael offered at the Hearing Before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Governmental Affairs, United States Senate, 104th Congress, Second Session, May 15, 1996. (Here's a link to his testimony.) We're not publishing the following because we have a bone to pick with the former Colombo capo, as some juveniles may think. In our view, Michael Franzese is a good guy who is very good (masterful in fact) at what he does. We publish the following because it’s interesting historical information.

(Note: former Luchese underboss Anthony (Gaspipe) Casso testified after Franzese at the same hearing. We will publish his testimony in time.)

My name is Michael Franzese, and I have been subpoenaed here today to address the Subcommittee regarding my personal experiences with Russian organized crime in the United States. In order to understand the extent of that activity, the Subcommittee needs to be aware of my own background and former involvement in organized crime.

I was born in Brooklyn, New York. My father is John "Sonny" Franzese, former underboss of the Colombo crime family, one of New York's five La Cosa Nostra families. In 1975, I became a "made" member of the Colombo family, in a formal induction ceremony presided over by then family boss, Thomas DiBella.

I acted in the capacity of "soldier" from 1975 through 1980, when I was appointed a "caporegime" and given a crew of soldiers to preside over.

During the years I was a member, I engaged in criminal activity on my own behalf as well as that of the Colombo family, such criminal activity included tax fraud, loan sharking, gambling, securities fraud, labor racketeering and extortion.

In 1985, I was indicted in the Eastern District of New York for various racketeering charges. In 1986, as part of a plea agreement with the Organized Crime Strike Force of the Department of Justice, I pled guilty to two counts of the 28-count indictment relating to tax fraud. I accepted a 10-year prison sentence and $15 million in fines and restitution.

In or about 1987, while in Federal prison in California, I decided to sever my 12-year relationship with the Colombo crime family and organized crime in general. As I address the Subcommittee here today, I am no longer a member of organized crime.

In early 1980, while I was a Colombo family soldier, Lawrence lorizzo, a major independent gasoline wholesaler based in Long Island, New York, came to me for protection. lorizzo and Russian organized crime figures working independently of one another each figured out how to orchestrate one of the most lucrative Government rip-offs of all time — stealing gas tax money.

As you have been told by previous witnesses, this was a complex scam that, over the years, has netted Italian and Russian organized crime hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. And the Russians pioneered and perfected these schemes to where I understand it is still going on today despite changes in the law.

I first got involved because some mob figures were trying to shake down lorizzo. lorizzo owned or operated some 300 independent gas stations throughout Long Island at that time. It was a cash-heavy operation. I resolved lorizzo's problem by sending some of my men over to let these other mob figures know lorizzo was with me. That ended lorizzo's problem. In return, I became his partner in the wholesale gasoline business, and this business became an organized crime-controlled operation.

Later in 1980, I began working with Russians in the gas tax business. One of my soldiers, a guy named Vinnie, had been approached by the Russians to help collect a $70,000 debt. Vinnie's job was to say, "Pay the money, or I'll break your legs," and to sound convincing, which he was. My guy came to me with the Russian's offer to see if I was interested. I was, and so I arranged a meeting with the leaders of this Russian organized crime group — Michael Markowitz, David Bogatin, and Lev Persits. These men owned and operated a wholesale gasoline company in Brooklm, New York.

These Russians were having trouble collecting money owned them. They were also having problems obtaining and holding onto the licenses they needed to keep the gas tax scam going. I could help them on both counts. First, the Colombo family's reputation was very effective in causing people to pay their debts. Also, our family had a guy at the commissioner of revenue's office at the State House in Albany who could get the necessary licenses.

The Russians were eager to align themselves with someone who could resolve both problems. Because of my association with organized crime, they believed me to be that person. As it turned out, I was.

We arranged a sit-down on a Saturday morning in the fall of 1980 at a Mobil station they owned in Brooklyn. The three Russians told me how they were stealing tax money due the Government on the sale of gasoline and how they often ran into problems collecting some of the illegal proceeds from their customers.

We cut a deal whereby they agreed to become part of my organization. I would provide them with protection from the other mob families and the muscle to collect all the money due them. Through the services of Lawrence lorizzo and our gasoline operation, they would have access to the wholesale licenses they needed to defraud the State, county, and Federal Government out of tax revenue.

We agreed to share the illegal proceeds, 75 percent my end, 25 percent their end. The deal was put on record with all five crime families, and I took care of the Colombo family share out of the illegal proceeds of my end.

Over the next 4.2 years, the combined Russian-Iorizzo organization which I controlled defrauded the United States Government and the States and counties of New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Florida out of hundreds of millions of tax dollars due on the sale of gasoline.

To give you an idea how lucrative the gas tax business was, it was not unusual for me to receive $9 million in cash per week in paper bags from the Russians and lorizzo. Our profits ran anywhere from 2 to 30 cents per gallon, and at one point, we were moving 400 to 500 million gallons per month. I will leave it to you to do the math.

During that time, I became very closely involved with the Russian group. I found them to be intelligent, possessing remarkable business instincts that they would not hesitate to use for illegal gain. As a result of their experiences living in Communist Russia, they have little respect for United States law and little fear of American prisons.

They would frequently approach me with other illegal business ventures and were eager to share in illegal deals I would propose to them, such as loan sharking, insurance fraud and securities fraud.

One of the business ventures we jointly entered into was building a bank in Austria. The purpose of this transaction was to be able to use this bank to finance other organized crime ventures. I invested $10 million from my end of the illegal gas tax profits in this bank.

Including the money invested by the Russians, the bank had a total of $80 to $100 million in assets. Bogatin later went to Austria, where he played an active role in operating this bank. Additionally, lorizzo created a slush fund from Federal gas tax money, which he kept in this Austrian bank. That account accumulated $15 million when the Government seized it after lorizzo's arrest.

I found the Russians to be a group that wanted to flex their muscles and would not hesitate to resort to violence when they felt it necessary to do so. They enjoyed the relationship with both myself and the Colombo family because it gave them power and recognition as a group to be reckoned with.

I did not find the Russian criminals to be a very structured group in comparison to the Italian La Cosa Nostra. They were very clannish, however, and the most financially successful Russian was looked up to by his comrades as their leader or boss. The boss was given a lot of courtesy and respect and in return provided the members of his group with opportunities to work for him and make money.

Michael Markowitz, David Bogatin and Lev Persits were all in a position of leadership and had about 200 other Russians working under them in various capacities. They were also continuously assisting other Russians in immigrating to the United States.

After I went to prison in 1985, my information was that Markowitz, Bogatin and Persits did continue to work with the Colombo family in the gasoline business for a short period of time.

Around 1988, Markowitz was shot and killed in front of his home in Brooklyn. I do not know who was responsible for his death. However, I am reasonably certain that the hit was authorized by the Colombo family and could possibly have been carried out by other Russians.

An attempt was also made on the life of Lev Persits. Although he survived the attempt, he is permanently disabled and confined to a wheelchair today.

David Bogatin fled to Austria, where he had a controlling interest in the bank that was funded with gasoline tax money from our operation. He was captured in Poland, extradited to the United States to face tax fraud charges and is currently serving a Federal prison sentence.

I have provided the Subcommittee with a basic overview of my personal experience with Russian immigrants engaging in criminal activities during the 1980's. I hope this information is helpful, and I would be happy to answer any questions the Subcommittee might have.

Thank you.