The old thief has returned to Salt Lake City, but this time it isn't to lean on a guy about money he was owed. This time Mario Facione is in town to sign books and talk about his once-secret life, proving again that life really is stranger than fiction.

Facione's story is so good it ought to be a movie, or at least a book, which, in fact, it is. The title: "Mafia to Mormon."

As the title suggests, Facione joined the LDS Church and gave up his life of crime. After doing a fireside a few years later, he was approached by a woman about doing a book. Facione declined.

"I was scared," he says. "I told her when I get through talking you won't want to do this. When this gets on the street, you'll evaporate with your family."

She persisted. He finally relented. He talked, she wrote (she still does not want her name published). Facione put the project off for two more years because "I had to wait for two guys to leave the scene," he says, meaning they had to die. He also did a thorough check of the statute of limitations. The book took 18 years to complete.

His life of crime began young. His father began teaching him the trade when he was 8. He gave him strict rules as he matured: No women (because they talk), no drinking (because you talk), no idleness (idle hands . . . ), no swearing (draws attention to you).

"My father taught me the gospel, backwards," says Mario.

By 9, Facione was a pro. He swept floors in a bar so he could eavesdrop on customers, then he'd follow them home to see where they lived, learn if they had kids, then break into their homes in the light of day.

As an adult, he owned a trucking company and kept his eyes open for scams, which were backed by the Mafia. His biggest scheme: He stole more than a dozen backhoes weighing close to 200,000 pounds and sold them in neighboring states, only to buy them back later and resell them repeatedly.

By the age of 40, he had about $400,000 in cash and $3 million in assets. He tried some legit deals. As fate would have it, he invested $50,000 in a product made in Utah. It proved to be a scam. He flew to Salt Lake to get his money back. While in town, he says, he was strangely moved by the sight of the statue of Moroni at Temple Square. That night he had a vivid dream ("I came out of bed like I was shot out of a slingshot"). Two weeks later, back in Detroit, two LDS missionaries pulled into his driveway.

He told the Mafia about his conversion and, by the way, he would no longer work for them, even if it meant death. They allowed him to continue breathing, but he says they blackballed him and broke him. "I was a cash cow for them," he says.

His wife left him. He wound up living out of a Ford Escort and showering at a gas station. He had $15 in his pocket, an eighth-grade education and could barely read. And then one Sunday a man in church offered him a job.

Today, Facione, 66, has a wife, three children and seven grandchildren, and he works once a week at the LDS temple in Michigan. He endures as one of the world's unlikeliest Mormons.

"I'm a lucky man," he says. "Just think, I never would've known about the church if a guy hadn't tried to con me out of 50 grand."


Doug Robinson's column runs on Tuesday. Please send e-mail to drob@desnews.com.