Michael Franseze is one incredible character. And the best part is, he’s not fictional! From stealing $8 million a week to having his own father put a hit on his head, this real-life goodfella has a wild story that’s almost too crazy to believe. Buckle up and get ready to learn all about the incredible life of Michael Franseze (a.k.a. the “Yuppie Don”) from Netflix's docuseries Fear City.
Michael Franzese was born in Brooklyn, New York, on May 27th, 1957. His father was John "Sonny" Franzese, a longtime Colombo crime family underboss whose mob career dated back to the 1930s. Having grown up within the sinister world of organized crime, it’s no surprise that Franzese became a mob man himself.
“It’s hard to avoid,” the former mobster told The Las Vegas Sun in 2013. “When I was growing up, my dad always had seven or eight different agencies investigating him, and every one of them would have a car parked outside house 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Quite honestly, I grew up hating police. I hated the government and anything to do with law enforcement because of what I witnessed. They were the enemy, and my dad was the good guy. I grew up with that distorted point of view.”
In 1966, Franzese’s father was indicted in federal court for masterminding a nationwide string of bank robberies. He was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison, which prompted Michael to drop out of school so he could help his family earn income. Notorious crime boss Joe Colombo swooped in at that point and took Franzese under his wing. Eventually, Sonny Franzese proposed his son for mob membership, and on Halloween night in 1975, Michael Franzese became a made man.
He young rose to the rank of captain for the Colombo crime family and became one of the highest earners of the New York mob in the 1970s and ‘80s. Profiting mostly from tax and other business scams, he was dubbed the “Yuppie Don” because he was money-savvy and found so much success in white-collar crime.
“I did a lot of things at times with people on Wall Street,” he told CNBC in 2014. “A lot of guys are shady and they did shady things with me and I don’t trust them. And I don’t like other people that I don’t know really well taking care of my money. I think that I can do it better.”
In 1986, Fortune Magazine published a list of The 50 Biggest Mafia Bosses and Franzese ranked at number 18. In the BuzzFeed video below, the Yuppie Don shares a chilling fact—of the 50 mafia kings on that list, he’s the only one that’s alive today. Franzese also talks about how he devised an enormous scheme to defraud the government of gasoline tax, bringing in $8 million a week—sometimes more—for eight years.
But Franzese’s life changed in 1984 when he met a devout Christian woman named Camille Franzese. The capo fell instantly in love and was willing to do anything to be with her—including abandon his mob life. He pled guilty to racketeering charges in 1985, for which he served 10 years in prison and paid nearly $15 million to the government. He also violated his sacred mafia oath, which meant his former associates—including his father—now wanted him dead.
“My plan was to take a plea on this other case they were indicting me on, do some prison time, pay the government some money, marry my wife and move out to California,” he explained. “I figured after 10 or 12 years they’d forget about me, I’ll live happily ever after out in California. It didn’t work out that way. When I was put in a position to renounce my life and I did … My dad disowned me at the time, the boss put a contract on me, the feds tell me you’re a dead man anyway, you cooperate with us, we’ll put you in a program. I had a rough time for a number of years.”
The good news? Franzese won over Camille and the two married in 1985.
Despite the fact that there was now a hit out on his life, Franzese refused witness protection for himself and his family. When asked why, the goodfella said:
“Because I wasn’t gonna hurt anybody. And you know, I felt I was living life for the right reasons. Protect my family, you gotta understand, my family, my mother, brother, sisters, were devastated as a result of my father being in prison and his involvement. I had a young wife. I didn’t wanna start my relationship with her by destroying our family. I wanted out of that life. I wasn’t gonna hurt anybody, I didn’t want revenge on anybody, I just wanted out of that life.”
When Franzese was released from prison in 1994, he and Camille moved to California, where they lived in constant fear for their lives.
“I knew the mentality of the guys,” Franzese told the Las Vegas Sun. “Your best friend walks you into a room and you don’t walk out again. I moved out to California, I don’t put the house or utilities in my name, I don’t walk my dog every morning at 7 o’clock, I don’t go to the same restaurant, I don’t go to any nightclubs. I changed my whole life around. I’m on my guard the whole time.”
According to Franzese’s own website, he’s “the only high-ranking official of a major crime family to ever walk away without protective custody, and survive.” So how did he do it?
“I never sold anybody short,” he says. “What happened throughout the years, just about everybody I ran with is either dead or in prison for the rest of your life. So I kind of outlasted everybody.”
To say that Franzese’s life has changed drastically since he left the mob is a major understatement. Thanks to Camille’s influence, he embraced the Christian faith and became a man of God. He publicly denounced his former life of organized crime and became a life coach and motivational speaker, traveling around the country sharing his story of redemption. He also frequently speaks at Christian conferences and churches, and visits prisons in an effort to deter criminal behavior.
That’s certainly a far cry from the shadowy mob life he used to know!
If you find Franzese’s story as fascinating as we do, you have to check out Netflix’s documentary series Fear City: New York vs The Mafia. It takes a deep dive into New York City’s five notorious crime families—Colombo, Gambino, Bonanno, Lucchese, and Genovese. The three-episode show, which is told from point of view of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, details how the feds used wiretaps to take the New York mob down in the mid-1980s. Franzese is interviewed throughout the show, sharing incredible details about what it was like to be on the inside.
It’s nearly impossible to escape the mob— but Michael Franzese did it and lived to tell the tale! And today, he lives a safe, prosperous life that’s nothing like his days as the Yuppie Don.