Before reputed mob boss Michael Franzese took the stage, his business partner Robert Michaels explained why they came.
“The reason that we feel it’s so important to be here is because gambling addiction is rampant in our nation. That’s why we’re here, that’s why we leave our families,” Roberts said. “Perhaps someone here tonight or someone that you know is struggling with gambling. It’s ruined careers, it’s cost student-athletes their careers, it’s caused people to commit murder and it’s caused people to take their own lives.”
Michaels then introduced Franzese, son of the Colombo crime family boss; John “Sonny” Franzese, to a packed crowd inside the Sun Dome’s Corral. Franzese served as an acting captain of the Colombo crime family during the 1980s while his father served time in prison.
Franzese wasn’t caught. He turned himself in, and turned his back on the Colombo crime family.
Leaving the mob wasn’t an easy thing to do.
Franzese became a sworn made member of the Colombo crime family at 23. His initiation was a secret ceremony in which blood was drawn from his finger and spilled on a picture of a saint, which was then set afire as he held it.
“I was sworn in on Halloween. They told me, ‘Tonight you are being born again into a new life, La Cosa Nostra. If you betray us, you’ll burn in hell like this saint is burning in your hands.’ Of the six people that I got sworn in with, I’m the only one that’s still alive, and none died of natural causes.”
Franzese is quick to point out that the Mafia in America is very different from the Mafia in Italy. He refers to the American mafia as La Cosa Nostra, or ‘this thing of ours.’ After going over what he calls “Mob 101”, Franzese moved on to the real point of his lecture: the dangers of gambling.
Franzese became involved with anti-gambling work when he was approached by federal agents in prison and offered a deal that he couldn’t refuse. The FBI agents asked him to participate in a video about gambling with National Basketball Association and other major sports leagues. The rest is history. Franzese was able to shave two years off of his prison sentence by agreeing to travel the country talking to collegiate and professional athletes about the dangers of gambling.
His message is for women and men. As Franzese recounted, “today women are just as involved as men in gambling. Women gamble for different reasons: 70 percent are emotional gamblers, 10 percent are action gamblers, and there is a 60/40 split between men and women in gambling treatment.”
He wanted students to know that even seemingly harmless forms of gambling are dangerous.
“Video poker machines are known as the crack cocaine of the industry,” he said. “Some of you out there don’t even realize what could be happening to you, even in casual poker games.”
According to Franzese, this message is even important for athletes, as they are often approached by bookies and offered money to throw games or provide information about a game or their teammates. Franzese read from an NCAA study, which found that 5 percent of college football players either threw a game, knew of a teammate who did, provided inside information about a game or were threatened or harmed because of betting on a game.
Franzese spoke of the desperation that overtakes those who owe money in gambling.
“If you’ve got a roommate who’s gambling, hide your stuff,” he said. “When gambling comes around, crime comes along with it.” He also cautioned college athletes to be wary of agents. He recounted an agent scheme he was involved with in which athletes were paid to throw games.
“Beware of sports agents, these guys can be slimy,” he said. “You can’t take anything that you shouldn’t be taking. It’s going to get you in trouble. You can’t let somebody make a sucker out of you.”
Asked if Franzese still looks over his shoulder, he responded by saying “The contract (put on his life by the Colombo family for turning his back on them) is never really removed. I had to change my whole life around. I can’t go back to New York and go back to the old neighborhood. I don’t even walk my dog the same time every morning so I don’t create a routine. Am I ever out of the woods? No.”
Franzese earned enormous sums of money for the mafia -$6 million to $8 million per week. Fortune Magazine ranked him 18th on its list of “50 biggest Mafia bosses” in 1986. He was also called “one of the biggest money earners in the history of the Mafia” by Life Magazine in 1987. Franzese’s most lucrative scheme was the one that landed him in jail: a gasoline tax fraud worth $1 billion.
Franzese ended his lecture by letting his audience know gambling is here to stay.”There’s a trail of misery left behind it,” he said. “Be mindful of it, be careful of it and don’t let it catch you.”
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