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"They'll Kill Me": Why a Mafia Member Risked His Life to Become Mormon

by | Sep. 12, 2017

Mormon Life

This story originally ran in LDS Living in 2005. Mario Facione passed away in 2015. Here is his story.

It seems in every culture and time period there are villains to be dealt with—the Philistines at the time of David, the Gadianton robbers in the Book of Mormon, the Nazi’s, Communists, and today’s terrorists. There was a time that the bad guys we all read about were the Mafia—the Cosa Nostra, the Mob; organized crime stories glorified in books by Mario Puzo and portrayed on the screen by Marlon Brando and other actors with Italian-sounding names.

The Mafia or “Mob” was always located in big cities like New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, or Detroit.  Names like Jimmy Hoffa and Al Capone were infamous household icons.  And we knew these people were bad to the core and always to be feared.

Then one of them from Detroit did an abrupt about face because two young missionaries gave him a strange book that he felt compelled to read.  His name was Mario Facione, and he specialized in the theft and black market liquidation of heavy construction equipment.  He didn’t know how to read very well, so he learned while struggling through the Book of Mormon.  He was touched by the spirit of the book and was baptized in 1981, but when he asked for a recommend to go to the temple his bishop told him he couldn’t serve two masters; he had to close the door on the past completely.

“But you don’t understand. They’ll kill me,” Facione responded.  “You don’t just walk away from the mob.”

The bishop said there was no other way, so Mario made a decision—he was ready to die, if necessary, for his newfound faith.

After hiding a cache of incriminating documents in a secret locker at the Detroit airport, Facione negotiated life and freedom with past bosses.  In the process, his wife left him and he was bombarded with lawsuits that left him financially destitute.  But he trusted the Lord and remained resolute in his faith.  Today he works in the Detroit temple.  This is his story: Mafia to Mormon.

My Introduction to the Business World

My father was a member of Detroit’s Italian Association; in fact, he was something of an institution. Dad, a master of diplomacy and language, rose to the presidency of the group.  A lot of union heavy-hitters were part of the association.  They elected my dad as president because, as long as he was speaking Italian, he could get a point across quite effectively.  And everybody respected his determination.

My dad was smart enough to stay mostly clean when it came to the underworld.  He had one toe in and the rest of his foot out.  He was running a successful and legitimate cement business at the time, but he was involved just enough with the other side to get their help if he needed it.   The guys needed my dad to make some of their scams work, and he was happy to help out.

Like my father, I could sniff out a chance to run a scam about as quickly as I could smell the first scent of mama’s cooking wafting out of the kitchen.  I joined the U.S. Army after I literally bought a GED.  It didn’t take too much time in the military motor pool before I realized there was the potential to make a bundle on the black market selling tools, parts, and other military equipment that my superiors would never know was missing.  At the time, the Army’s inventory and record-keeping system was unbelievably sloppy.

I learned early that if you don’t want to go to school for a career, which I didn’t, then this was the life.  Along the way, I never forgot the lesson my father taught me.  The secret to doing things is not getting caught. After spending two years with the U.S. Army, I was released with an honorable discharge.

I arrived back home and went to work at my dad’s cement business.  I never liked the cement business, but my allegiance to and respect for my father kept me in it.  One evening after dinner, I let him know that I didn’t want to take over the family business.  My dad was furious.  He said to me, “Don’t ever come back.”

I guess you could say he didn’t take my decision to leave the family business too well.  But about a year later, it all smoothed over.  By then my older brother had also left the business and dad had resigned himself to the fact that his boys were striking out on their own.

Setting Up Shop

My lucrative career in black market heavy machinery all began when a friend of mine was doing paperwork for one of the big machine-makers here in the states; he knew there was no way in the world they could trace the equipment once it went out the door.  The machines didn’t have serial numbers on them.

I didn’t have the financing at the time to go out and set up the network I needed to pull off the scam, so I went to certain people, showed them the potential, and they set me up.  It was an opportunity that I knew how to exploit.  A legitimate person might have gone to the manufacturer, pointed out the flaws, and then demanded a lot of money to help them close the loopholes.  Not me.  I turned it around and took advantage of it, made millions off it, and became a major player in the Italian Association.

By 1968 I was a key player in about six operations.  I used a lot of phony names and phony identification to set up or pull off scams. It was around that time that I met my future wife, Lynette.  She had a tight mouth.  She didn’t tell anybody nothing they weren’t supposed to know.  I just needed someone for a companion and she was helpful in certain ways, helping me watch my back.  We got married and it was a mutually beneficial arrangement in most ways.

My First Impression of Mormons

In the spring of 1980, I boarded a plane bound for Salt Lake City, Utah.  I had put money up front to get involved in a deal and was heading out to the place where it would all go down.

My thoughts about the details of the deal I was planning to finalize were interrupted by the pilot’s voice through the cabin announcing we were approaching the Salt Lake City airport.  I looked over and saw the rising spires of the granite Mormon temple in downtown Salt Lake.  My eyes were fixed on the gleaming spires of that temple.  It was the most beautiful building I had ever seen.

I was met, as arranged in advance, by a young man who was to drive me to Provo where I would meet up with my contact.  As we made our way south through the Salt Lake Valley I continued to be impressed by what I saw. 

I vaguely remembered hearing about this religion that was supposed to be based in Salt Lake City and asked the kid who was driving to tell me about it.  Turns out he was a member of the Church, but he didn’t attend anymore.  He explained a little about the Mormons to me and what they were like.  I started thinking about the Quakers, living a funny kind of life, not being in the mainstream of the world.

The young man didn’t tell me too much more, just that Mormons were very unique.  He wasn’t bitter; he just said he couldn’t be involved with the Church anymore.  But he did say it was good, and that the community was good.

After meeting my contact, we talked for a few minutes and agreed on the plans for the next day.  I went to my hotel for the night.  I’d just settled into bed in my hotel room and must have drifted off because I soon found myself watching what seemed to be a play.

I was the sole audience member and the actors were talking directly to me.  As I sat in confusion, the words came at me. “You’ve got to do this,” one would say before another guy would come at me saying, “You’ve got to take this road.”

It was like they were directing everything at me and I was just stuck in this mass of confusion going, “Whoa.  What am I going to do?”  I was the only one there, so they had to be talking to me.  Should I take this road they kept talking about?

The words kept coming, pounding in my mind and I stood stagnant, unable to know what to do.  It was like the yellow brick road was in front of me, these guys were all telling me I should follow it, but I couldn’t move.

I woke with a start, clearly remembering every detail of what I realized was a dream.  I was filled with confusion about what I had experienced; after all, I had nothing to relate the dream to, no religious beliefs to tie it to, to refer to for translation.

Whatever the purpose of its origin, the dream stuck with me.  The next day I began having a lot of serious doubts about the guy I was working with and the deal we had worked out.  I confronted him and told him I wanted my money back.  He gave it back and I headed home to Detroit. The details of the dream still vivid in my mind, I went back to the shop, back to the deals, back to a way of life that seemed destined to continue.

The Missionaries Get My Attention

I’d been back in Michigan exactly two weeks when I returned home one day after work to a message from my wife that sent my blood pressure through the roof.

She told me that earlier that day she’d heard a knock on the door and found two clean-cut young men in suits standing outside.  On a normal day, for some reason, she wasn’t at work and spoke to the two guys who introduced themselves as Elder Staples and Elder Gardner.  They said they were from this church in Salt Lake City.  She smiled because she knew I’d just been there on a business trip and she told them so.

They handed her some pamphlets about their church and asked if they could come back when I got home.  For some reason that I don’t think she even knew, Lynette said yes.  That was bad enough, but it got worse.

At that time, we had a phone line operating in our home that no one knew about but us and two others.  It was for calls that I didn’t want no one to know I was getting, and the callers didn’t want anyone to know they were making.  For some reason when those guys came to the house, Lynette gave them the number to the private line to call me back on.  She said they could return to talk with me when I was home, but that they would have to call first.  So they left, carrying with them a phone number they should never have had.

When I got home and she told me about giving them that number, I was furious.  My mind was flooded with thoughts of all the problems this could cause me with that number being given out.  So, when I knew there were two guys out there with this phone number I went ballistic and frantically focused on what I could do. I had to get that number back and find out exactly who Lynette had given it to.  Sure, they’d said they were from some church but anyone, including the feds, could use that story.

I waited for the phone call from one of them.  I was really going to jump on the guy, tell him to get rid of the number and all that, really lean on him to never want to have anything to do with that number or me again.  My wife told me they were young boys and I figured I could scare them into not doing anything they shouldn’t .

But when the call came, it didn’t quite go down that way.  Instead, as this boy who called himself a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints started talking to me, something came over me that made me want to relax.  Instead of threatening the kid like I planned, we talked for a few minutes and I was calmly interested in what he was saying. 

I started thinking to myself that maybe it’d be good to get to know these guys for two reasons: so I could get some insight into whether they were trying to scam me, and also, to convince them to forget all about the phone number they had. 

We made an appointment for the next week.  Although I didn’t know it at the time, I later learned that I would always be grateful to Lynette for giving out that private phone number. It certainly made those two young missionaries get my attention!

Breaking the Rules

When the young men pulled up to my house that night, I saw their nametags engraved with the name of their church and how young they were.  It blew my mind!  We went inside and I said, “Okay, tell me what you’re all about.”

They started talking about the church’s belief in Jesus Christ and something they called the Plan of Salvation.  They talked about how Jesus died so that people could be forgiven of the things that they did wrong and be able to live with Heavenly Father after they died.

No one, until now, had ever been able to give me the answers I wanted about the purpose of life.  These two young boys gave me an answer to every question I had, and I had a lot of questions!  I was really wrapped up in the lesson.  They were answering my questions and I wanted to keep going.  It was getting late and they insisted that they had a curfew and had to go.  They said that someone they called their mission president set the rules and that they had to answer to him.

“Get him on the phone,” I said.  They looked at each other like, “Whoa, we can’t do that,” but I told them if they wanted to ever come back, they’d better get him on the phone.

The missionary who was making the call was really nervous but he picked up the phone and made the call anyway.  I talked to the mission president myself.

“I know the boys have rules and stuff but I enjoy listening to what they have to say,” I told the faceless person on the other end.  “I don’t want to wait another week.  I’ll see that they get home safely so you don’t have to worry about it.”

The president wasn’t easily convinced.  He brought up these rules that they were expected to stick to.  But I wouldn’t listen.  “If they can’t stay now, don’t bother sending them back,” I said.  I meant it, too.  He finally agreed, telling me to tell the one missionary to call him when they got back later that night.

Around 2:00 a.m., I finally let them leave.  I jumped in my car to make sure they’d be okay and reminded them to call their boss.  We made an appointment for the next week.

As each day passed since that marathon visit, my mind was preoccupied with everything I’d heard.  It was like whispers, voices, reminders following me around that wouldn’t let me forget.

All this was going on in my head and I couldn’t talk to anybody about it, especially not the people I was involved with.  To them, religion was one of the most successful scams of all time—a front used to draw in millions and millions of dollars

Am I Being Conned?

I couldn’t wait to meet them again the next week.  But, when they came over, they kept asking me to read passages of scripture.  Finally I pulled one missionary aside and said, “I don’t know how to read so do me a favor and quit asking me.  You’re embarrassing me.”  He got real red in the face and said, “Okay, okay.  I won’t ask you anymore.”

The lesson was only four hours that night, but as they left I asked if they wanted me to follow them home again.  I went outside with them and one of the missionaries went to the trunk of their car, opened it, and gave me a Book of Mormon.

I stared back at him.  “Man, I never went past the tenth grade,” I said.  “I bluffed my way through school up to then.  I don’t think I can do it.”

“Get on your knees and pray about it,” the missionary responded.  I heard that and said to myself, “You mean, all I’ve got to do is just get on my knees and follow this order and ask and I’ll be able to start reading?”  I found that difficult to believe, but the missionary had just given me a challenge and I jumped on it.

I decided to try it but I didn’t want to do it in front of my wife.  She thought the missionaries and their church were nice, but she didn’t really get into it.  She went to bed and I stayed in the living room. I opened the Book of Mormon and started looking at it.

I saw the words, the sentences, the unfamiliar language of a time long ago and the doubts flooded my mind.  So I got on my knees there by the couch in the living room.  I was nervous.  I wasn’t embarrassed, but I was very nervous because, what if there really was a God?

I was so used to conning people and wondered if I was being conned.  Or, alternately, was I conning God?  I got on my knees and thought, “Okay, I can do this.”  So I tried it.  No big deal.  I mean, I just asked to be able to read.  I went to bed for the night, uncertain that the words had gone any further than the walls of the living room.

It was Saturday the next morning, so I took the book to my office and sat behind my desk, all by myself.  I opened the book and line-by-line read the introduction to it.   I sat there for hours, reading each word.  The more I got into it, the more it felt like everything was making sense.  I didn’t get bored.  Sometimes I was frustrated with a word or two, but I didn’t get bored.

A Change of Heart

On the next visit, the missionaries brought a film about the dedication of the Washington, D.C. temple.  The narrator talked about the construction of this magnificent towering building outside the nation’s capital, about the Plan of Salvation, and about the sealing rooms where brides and grooms could get married, not just until death when they would part, but for eternity.

As the narrator continued, the camera looked inside the temple, hoisted aloft by a helicopter, and circled the spires including the one topped by the glistening, golden figure of Moroni holding his trumpet aloft into the sky.

That just penetrated me.  It sent volts of electricity running through me.  Just looking at that statue and knowing what he represented and what it was all about just blew me away. Something inside me broke open.  I bawled like a baby.  I had this overwhelming feeling that I had to get into that building.  I could not explain the feeling. 

When the lights came back up, I turned to those boys and said, “I have to go to that building.  What do I have to do to get there?”  I knew what I saw was right.  There wasn’t any doubt in my mind that what they’d shown me was true. From that day on, I knew that my life had to change.  It became obvious to me that my livelihood, my lifestyle, everything that I currently knew had to change completely.

Walking Out Alive

I was baptized a member of the Church soon after.  After carefully making plans to leave the organization, and coming to an understanding of the life-threatening risk I was about to take, I set up a meeting with the organization leaders. Everyone arrived at a warehouse in Detroit we used for storage where I explained that I’d come to join the Mormon Church. I told them what it stood for and explained that because of my new beliefs, I no longer could continue to be involved with these types of operations. I needed to get out.

Our leader, Mr. Borilla, let loose with a tirade that would have wilted flowers or any other living thing. Clearly, I had completely lost my mind or so it seemed to him, and most likely, everyone else. Through an exchange of words with the others, Mr. Borilla sat there watching me, listening to what I said, looking and looking at me.

“I heard of those people,” he said, finally breaking his silence. “I know they’re good people and they’re trustworthy people. If you live the way they want you to live, I have nothing to worry about. 

Soon, the conversation ended with a handshake, the binding symbol that told everyone in the room that there could be no death, and I turned to walk out. With each footstep, I moved closer to the warehouse door, still not completely sure I wouldn’t be taken out from behind before I reached it.

I made it out the door. Nothing.

I made it to my car. Still nothing.

I put my key in the ignition and started the engine, wondering what might be wired under the hood. No explosion.

I pulled out of the lot and started driving down the road. At that moment, sweet relief and amazement poured over me. I realized that I had done the impossible, escaped from the mob with my life.

Coming Full Circle

Lynette and I joined the Church together, but she didn’t take to it like I did.  Our marriage ended after a few short months.  After everything was said and done, I walked away from my old life totally broke.  All I had was my car, my clothes, and ten or twelve dollars to my name. 

On the other hand, after my spirit changed through humility, my life has changed and blossomed in ways I never could have expected.  My intense desire to go through the temple came to reality after a year.  I met up with the missionary who taught and baptized me when I went through the Salt Lake temple for the first time.  He brought his missionary journal and together we realized how the Lord had helped us find each other. 

More than twenty-one years have passed since that night in the hotel room in Provo, the night of my dream.  The Lord tried to get the message to me in a way I might be able to understand, not having an education and all.  I’ll never forget that dream.

The full meaning of the dream hit me like a ton of bricks on the day I was married and sealed in the Jordan River Temple to Cathy and her three children. I realized why the Lord had sent me the dream, the missionaries, and deliverance.  He needed me to help raise those kids.  It was part of his plan.

Over the years, we’ve led a comfortable life and made a comfortable living though it will never approach the lifestyle I had before. But I wouldn’t want that anyway. No power, money, or prestige could ever come close to the spiritual riches I’ve gained thanks to the redeeming love the Lord has given me.

This story originally ran in LDS Living in 2005. Mario passed away in 2015.
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