John "Sonny" Franzese Sr. (Italian: ; February 6, 1917 – February, 20, 2020) was an Italian-American mobster who was a longtime member of the Colombo crime family. Franzese's career in organized crime began in the 1930s and spanned over eight decades. He served as underboss of the Colombo family from 1963, until he was sentenced to 50 years in prison for bank robbery charges in 1967. He was paroled in 1978, but was re-jailed at least six times on parole violations throughout the decades that followed. He became Colombo family underboss again in 2004, until he was convicted of extortion in 2011, and sentenced to eight years in prison. His son John Franzese Jr. had testified against him, becoming the first son of a New York mobster to turn state's evidence and testify against his father. At the time of his release on June 23, 2017, at the age of 100, he was the oldest federal inmate in the United States and the only centenarian in federal custody.
1 Rise in the Colombo crime family
2 Bank robbery conviction
3 Workshop on murder
4 Indictments and final sentence
5 Movie business
6 Family and personal life
9 External links
Rise in the Colombo crime family
Franzese was born in Naples, Italy, to Carmine Franzese and Maria Corvola on February 6, 1917, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He grew up with three brothers. He moved with his family to New York City when he was a young boy.
In the late 1930s, Franzese worked under Joseph Profaci, underboss of the Profaci crime family (later named the Colombo crime family). His first arrest came in 1938, for assault. In 1942, in the midst of World War II, he was discharged from the United States Army because he displayed "homicidal tendencies". Court papers accused him of committing rape against a waitress in 1947, but was never arrested in relation to the crime.
Franzese (left) with boxer Rocky Graziano (center) in the 1940s
Franzese operated out of New York City and New Jersey and was involved in racketeering, fraud, and loansharking. He was also a regular at the Copacabana and met with such stars as Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. on a frequent basis. He was initiated in 1949 and served in the crew of Sebastian "Buster" Aloi, father of former Colombo family acting boss Vincenzo Aloi. He is believed to have been elevated to caporegime or captain in the Colombo family in the mid 1950s by Profaci. By 1963, he had been promoted to underboss by boss Joseph Colombo. In 1966, Franzese was able to avoid a murder charge of a rival by dumping the body into a bay.
In 1967, Franzese gained a financial interest in a new recording company, Buddah Records. The company became quite successful, recording hits for acts such as Melanie Safka, Bill Withers, the Isley Brothers, and Curtis Mayfield. Franzese used Buddah to launder illegal mob earnings and to bribe disc jockeys with payola. He also infiltrated and began to make money through the owner of Calla Records, Nate McCalla, until the recording label ceased operations in 1977 and McCalla was murdered execution style in 1980.
He was accused of murdering Genovese crime family hitman-turned-informant Ernest Rupolo in 1964 on the orders of Vito Genovese. Rupolo was shot and stabbed several times before his feet were attached to two concrete blocks and his hands tied then dumped into the water. During the trial, the prosecution produced records claiming that Franzese had killed between 30 and 50 people. Franzese was later acquitted of the murder.
Bank robbery conviction
On March 3, 1967, Franzese was convicted in Albany, New York of masterminding a series of bank robberies across the country in 1965, and was sentenced to 50 years in prison at United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth, by judge Jacob Mishler. His son, Michael, alleged that when Mishler sentenced his father, Franzese declared, "You watch. I'm gonna do the whole 50". In 1978, Franzese was released on parole but returned to prison in 1982 for a parole violation. In 1984, Franzese was released on parole again. Until 2008, he was never charged with another crime, although he would frequently return to prison on parole violations at least six times.
Workshop on murder
In 2006, Franzese discussed techniques for mob murders with Gaetano "Guy" Fatato, a Colombo associate, not realizing that Fatato was a government informant and taping the conversation. Franzese told Fatato:
I killed a lot of guys – you're not talking about four, five, six, ten.
Franzese also told Fatato that he put nail polish on his fingertips before a murder to avoid leaving fingerprints at the crime scene. Franzese also suggested wearing a hairnet during the murder so as to avoid leaving any hair strands at the crime scene that could be DNA analyzed.
Finally, Franzese stressed the importance of properly dealing with the corpse. His procedure was to dismember the corpse in a kiddie pool, dry the severed body parts in a microwave oven, and then run the parts through a commercial-grade garbage disposal. Franzese observed:
Today, you can't have a body no more ... It's better to take that half-an-hour, an hour, to get rid of the body than it is to leave the body on the street.
Indictments and final sentence
FBI surveillance photo of Franzese and his son John Franzese Jr. (right) in 2005.
After the 2004 incarceration of John "Jackie" DeRoss, Franzese reclaimed his role as Colombo family underboss for the first time since his 1967 imprisonment. However, in May 2007, Franzese was again returned to prison for a parole violation. In June 2008, Franzese, still incarcerated, was indicted on charges of participating in murders during the Colombo Wars of the early 1990s, stealing fur coats in New York City in the mid 1990s, and participating in home invasions by police impersonators in Los Angeles in 2006.
On June 4, 2008, Franzese was indicted along with other Colombo mobsters on charges of racketeering conspiracy, robbery, extortion, narcotics trafficking, and loansharking. On December 24, 2008, Franzese was released from the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. According to law enforcement, Franzese remained the official underboss of the Colombo family.
Franzese's son, John Franzese Jr. became a government informant. Franzese Jr. was allegedly also responsible for his father's fourth parole violation, but was accepted back into his confidence after denying the allegations in tears, saying, "I would never do that, no matter what kind of trouble I had." In 2005, Franzese Jr. wore a wire around his father. John Franzese Jr. testified twice against his father, the last time his father attempted to have him killed; he later lived under witness protection. In 2010, Franzese Jr. admitted that he received $50,000 from the FBI as a cooperating witness. He is the first son of a New York mobster to turn state's evidence and testify against his father.
Franzese had been dubbed "the Nodfather" for snoozing during his trial. With the help of Franzese Jr.'s testimony, the 93-year-old Franzese Sr., on January 14, 2011, was sentenced to eight years in prison for extorting two Manhattan strip clubs, running a loanshark operation and extorting a pizzeria on Long Island. Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of 12 years, while Franzese's lawyer asked for leniency based on a variety of ailments, including partial blindness and deafness, gout, and heart and kidney problems. Franzese was denied compassionate release in July 2016. Franzese was released from the Federal Medical Center in Devens, Massachusetts, on June 23, 2017, at the age of 100; he was the oldest federal inmate in the United States and the only centenarian in federal custody at the time of his release. That year also marked the end of Franzese's original 50 year sentence for bank robbery that was the cause of his many parole violations over the years.
Franzese is listed as an associate producer of the 2003 film This Thing of Ours, which stars James Caan. He also helped finance the $22,000 budget of the 1972 pornographic film Deep Throat, which generated $30–50 million dollars, and the 1974 slasher film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which earned over $30 million from a $80,000–140,000 investment.
Family and personal life
Franzese was married to Cristina Capobianco-Franzese. Franzese has eight children, 18 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. His son, Michael, became a Colombo capo who ran his father's rackets during the 1980s when his father was in prison. After he was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1986, Michael was ultimately released in 1994, retired to California, and became a devoted Christian. His younger son, John Franzese Jr., was a Colombo family associate before becoming an FBI informant. On June 23, 2017, Franzese was released and returned home. In 2019, Franzese Jr. met with his father at the nursing home where he resides and reconciled with him; John Jr. had previously voluntarily left the Witness Protection Program. He died of natural causes, on February 20, 2020 at the age of 103.
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