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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.

April 06, 1992|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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."

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.

"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.

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.

"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.

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.

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