Getting the part in "Reform School Girls" had made her bolder. She began asking Lepore about himself and where they stood. He hemmed and hawed. Then she was leafing through his latest nutrition book, and out fell a photo that showed two females who looked very much like a wife and daughter.
She walked out and changed her phone number. Boy loses girl.
Were it not for a chance encounter, there never would have been a record of Lepore's attempts to find Linda Carol over the next two years. The FBI would not have discovered one of its most successful Mafia moles ever. And the Dramex sting would not have snared its showpiece trio.
But soon after Lepore returned to Boston, he stumbled upon a 60-ish woman shopping in the North End, the mother of Ralph Franchi, who'd fled the area in 1979, owing Lepore money. As Franchi later described the incident to a grand jury, Lepore told his mother, "I should go back and take care of what I owed."
Franchi says he immediately phoned Lepore, furious, wanting "to get my mother out of the way." But the tone of the conversation changed when Lepore learned where he was living now--near Los Angeles. Lepore was intrigued. "He said he had some friends down here," Franchi relates, "and that he would be coming out. He said that this was a wide-open town and that with his connections, good things could happen."
Good things? Did Lepore have any idea how much Franchi hated him?
To Franchi, Lepore was the symbol of the humiliation he endured growing up around the North End's legitimate guys. Yearning to belong, Franchi by 16 was a gofer at Caffe Pompeii, a coffee shop-pool hall, bringing the men drinks and picking up bets. He also began wagering himself--and borrowing money from Lepore. The first time they met, Franchi says, Lepore threw a glass of cappuccino in his face, complaining it was cold, then later stuck a knife up his nose, for fun.
But Franchi saw the debt to Lepore as a sign that he "was being accepted" by the tough guys. He even began working for Lepore, rounding up Italian immigrants looking to borrow a few bucks or find a prostitute. When he couldn't control his own gambling, however, his debt rose. Two collectors tracked him down. "I'm driving through east Boston--boom!--two shots right through the windshield," he told a Boston mobster on one of the tapes.
The bullets missed. And that's when Franchi headed west--and kept going until he reached ocean. He opened a restaurant in Hermosa Beach, sold pasta machines, started a family.
Now, eight years later, with a phone call, the memories came rushing back. Here was Champagne Lepore--"that narcissistic, egotistical maniac"--announcing that he, too, was looking west and assuming, amazingly, that Franchi would help him.
Franchi told him, "Sure." Then he called the FBI. "It was either that," he says, "or I was thinking of killing the guy."
A shade under six feet, Franchi was pushing 250 pounds, with a 20-inch neck. With his curly black hair and full beard, he looked like a mountain man--or an enforcer. Still, the FBI didn't know what to make of him. He wasn't like prominent mob defectors, such as Sammy (the Bull) Gravano, top aide to John Gotti, New York's reigning boss. Men like that made deals to get leniency from criminal charges or protection from rivals.
Franchi had only flitted around the fringes of the underworld. All he could promise was what he could dig up on the inside. But law enforcement officials in Los Angeles have long been alert to any hint of a Mafia incursion, priding themselves on keeping such characters out of town. Decades ago, the LAPD set up a special unit at the airport to greet mob figures as they arrived, then send them packing. Whereas New York and Chicago have hundreds of "made members," not many more than a dozen are generally floating around Los Angeles, whose homebred hoods, meanwhile, are dubbed the "Mickey Mouse Mafia."
Franchi started taping in 1988. He wasn't "wired" but simply carried a small Panasonic in his pocket, hidden in a wad of bills. While waiting for Lepore to make his move, he flashed the roll at joints where L.A.'s mob guys met, lining up drug deals, proving himself to the feds. "I can get coke," he announced at Ciro's Pizza Pomodoro. "What else? I can get . . . credit cards, uh, antiques. . . . Can you move antiques? I might have some beautiful ivory statues. . . ."
The agents gave Franchi's early tapes a close listen in their Wilshire Boulevard office tower, and soon they were paying him $5,000 a month, plus expenses, to keep going.
OCT. 5, 1988. THE GLENDALE GALLERIA.
Lepore: "Lemme explain this, Ralph. California and Las Vegas are known with the, the transients. Witness relocation people come here and Vegas more than anywhere."
Franchi: "You mean informants . . . against the wiseguys?"
Lepore: "California's so big, and they blend in. . . . It sucks, everyone's a transient. That's why people f--- each other here all the time."