|Born||February 6, 1917|
|Children||7, including John Franzese Jr. and Michael Franzese|
|Parent(s)||Carmine Franzese and Maria Corvola|
|Allegiance||Colombo Crime Family|
|Conviction(s)||Bank robbery (1967)|
|Criminal penalty||50 years imprisonment (1967)|
Eight years imprisonment (2011)
John "Sonny" Franzese Sr. (Italian: [ˈfrantseːze; -eːse]; born February 6, 1917) is a powerful Italian-American mobster who is a longtime member of the Colombo crime family. Franzese's career in organized crime spans over eight decades and he served as underboss of the Colombo crime family. At the time of his release on June 23, 2017, he was the oldest federal prisoner in the United States and the only centenarian in federal custody. Franzese is currently the oldest living gangster in the world.
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. However, his son, Michael Franzese, says that his father was actually born in 1919. 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). Franzese bore a close physical resemblance to boxer Rocky Graziano, one of his friends. 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 in 1947, although he was never arrested for it. According to a 1965 FBI report, the bureau described Franzese as "the fastest growing and most prominent loan shark in the Greater New York area," and "has been engaged in taking over New York night clubs through his shylocking enterprise". It is alleged that Franzese had a long standing partnership with former Genovese crime family acting boss Matthew Ianniello, both venturing in the adult entertainment business until the late 1980s when Ianniello was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
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 Joseph Profaci. By 1964, he had been promoted to underboss by Joseph Colombo. In 1966, Franzese was able to avoid a conviction for murdering a rival and 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 as a favor to 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.
In March 1967, Franzese was convicted of masterminding several bank robberies. In 1970, he was sentenced to 50 years in prison by federal 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 jail on parole violations.
Frequent parole violations
In 1986, after Carmine Persico was sentenced to 139 years in prison, he created a three-man Ruling Panel to oversee the Colombo family. Persico had planned to place Franzese on this panel, but in August 1986, Franzese was sent back to prison again for another parole violation. In 1992, after returning to the weakened Colombo crime family, Franzese again violated parole and went to prison for meeting with other organized crime figures. In November 2000, after resuming a top authority in the family, Franzese violated parole again and was sent back to prison in January 2001. Law enforcement had learned about the meeting from Franzese's son, John Franzese Jr., who had become a government informant.
Workshop on murder
In later years, Franzese discussed techniques for mob murders with Gaetano "Guy" Fatato, a new Colombo associate. What Franzese did not realize was that Fatato was a government informant and was 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 last sentence
After the 2005 incarceration of John "Jackie" DeRoss, Franzese became the new underboss. 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.
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. Franzese was released from the Federal Medical Center in Devens, Massachusetts, on June 23, 2017, at the age of 100. 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 later life
Franzese was married to Cristina Capobianco-Franzese. She died in 2012 of cancer while Franzese was in prison. As of June 2016, 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. Michael later became a born-again Christian and left the Mafia. His 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, he and his son John Jr., would reconcile their differences after John Jr. was recognized in public and voluntarily left the Witness Protection Program.
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