The violent, sociopathic and amazingly long life of John “Sonny” Franzese, a former Colombo crime family underboss who once ran bookmaking, loansharking and extortion rackets in New York and Long Island, ended at a hospital on Monday, February 24. The cause of death was not disclosed.
Franzese, who was 103 years old, represented a virtual time machine in Mob history. He reigned at the height of the Mafia’s power and influence in 1950s New York, a “made” man at 33, enjoying the spoils of criminal wealth, hobnobbing in Manhattan nightspots with Mob-intrigued celebrities such as Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. and Italian-American pro boxers of the day Jake LaMotta and Rocky Graziano.
With few interruptions in the 1950s, Franzese took part in forceful extortions of businesses, loansharking, bookmaking and brutal gangland murders, from 40 to 50 killings by his own estimation. Working out of Roslyn, Long Island, he served as a lieutenant to Brooklyn gang chief Joseph Magliocco, who had succeeded the late Profaci family boss Joe Profaci in 1962.
By the mid-1960s, his harsh loansharking and bookmaking operations had invaded the New York suburbs in Suffolk County, including his driving out the husband and wife owners of an ice cream parlor to insert a gambling operation. However, amid nationwide crackdowns on organized crime, federal and New York law enforcement were catching up to him.
In late 1964, his crooked life began to crumble when the New York state’s Investigation Commission ordered him and his fellow loansharks to testify about criminal threats and extortion in Suffolk. Franzese pleaded the Fifth Amendment 18 times to avoid questions about his work for Magliocco, which got Sonny and his photo published in the New York Daily News.
‘Muscle Man’ enforcer
Now a target of the grand jury, Franzese, considered the boss of rackets in Long Island and “muscle man” enforcer of street loans, was indicted in March 1966 on charges related to his strong-arming for a $10 million-per-year bookmaking ring in New York’s Broadway area and the garment district.
Sonny’s legal problems grew in April 1966 when the FBI arrested him following an indictment by a federal grand jury, listing him as the mastermind of a gang that robbed more than $65,000 from four banks and loan associations in New York, Massachusetts and Utah. Prosecutors believed it was the first case of bank robbery by the Cosa Nostra. Investigators also suspected Franzese’s ring in the March 1966 theft of $2 million in jewelry from a Miami hotel.
His troubles would extend to the Mob itself. That September, in a meeting the press dubbed “Little Apalachin,” 13 Cosa Nostra bosses — including Gambino family chief Carlo Gambino and Tampa, Florida, crime leader Santo Trafficante — met in the basement of a Queens restaurant to discuss what to do about the now-infamous Franzese.
Police got wind of the conclave during a county grand jury investigation into Franzese and others suspected in the murder of Ernest “The Hawk” Rupolo, a Genovese hood found stabbed and shot, his body chained to cinder blocks and tossed into Jamaica Bay back in 1964. Prosecutors determined the bosses knew Franzese and ordered them jailed on $100,000 bond each as material witnesses in the murder. The baker’s dozen of bosses clammed up before the jury. Still, the jurors indicted Franzese and four other mobsters in Rupolo’s murder.
While Franzese stood before a judge at his arraignment on murder charges in a Queens criminal court, reporters for the New York Daily News described the then 47-year-old as “a dapperly dressed, powerfully built man, wearing a gray, pinstriped suit and carrying a gray top coat.”
Colombo family captain
For Sonny, a captain in the family led by Joe Colombo in New York, there was some good news mixed with the bad. He beat the murder rap, and the bookmaking and loansharking charges failed to pan out. But federal prosecutors prioritized his bank robbery case. In 1967, a court convicted him and the judge handled down a 50-year sentence in federal prison.
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover listed Franzese’s prison term among the bureau’s major achievements for 1967, along with sentences for extortion given to hoodlums Charles Battaglia of Tucson, Arizona, and Sam Battaglia of the Chicago Outfit. That year, the FBI racked up a record 121 racketeering convictions against mobsters, and anti-racketeering charges filed against another 330 defendants.
Franzese won parole in 1978, but went back to prison at least six times for violating parole after police spied him meeting fellow wiseguys in public. By 2005, despite his advanced age, his standing as a New York hoodlum remained so high that the Colombos appointed him underboss, or second in command.
At the ripe old age of 93, instead of retiring, he was still physically threatening enough to force extortion payments from the Hustler and Penthouse gentleman’s clubs in Manhattan and a pizza eatery in Long Island.
Son wears wire, testifies in court
Then his own family intervened. His former crack-addicted son John Jr., fed up with having to live with his father’s Mob ties, agreed to wear a wire to record hundreds of hours of their conversations for the FBI and provide damning testimony in Brooklyn federal court in a racketeering case against his dad. On the tapes, Sonny spoke openly about his scheme to shake down the strip clubs.
Sonny’s estranged, resentful second wife, Christina, defended John Jr.’s actions, telling the Daily News: “He’s not testifying against his father, he’s testifying against this [Mob] life. I’m on my son’s side. John [Jr.] was not happy with that life, that’s why he did drugs.”
But another of Sonny’s three sons, Michael, a one-time Colombo racketeer, had a different take on John Jr.’s decision, even though he said he still loved his brother: “I don’t agree with anything he’s doing. I’m surprised at what I’m hearing. I feel worse for my father. I know he’s very hurt by it.”
After serving a stint in prison, Michael Franzese abandoned the criminal life, instead writing books and making motivational speeches. In 2018, Michael produced a musical called A Mob Story that had a brief run at the Plaza Hotel in downtown Las Vegas.
John Jr.’s cooperation contributed to Sonny’s conviction and an eight-year sentence for extortion in 2010. It was his last stint in prison, lasting until his release in 2017, at age 100, at the time the oldest inmate in federal custody.
Jeff Burbank is content development specialist for The Mob Museum. A longtime journalist and former university lecturer, he is the author of five books, including Las Vegas Babylon: True Tales of Glitter, Glamour, and Greed, License to Steal: Nevada’s Gaming Control System in the Megaresort Age and Lost Las Vegas. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.