John “Sonny” Franzese – A Colombo Family Legend

sonny franzese

If there was ever a living example of the resiliency and
pervasiveness of organized crime in America, it had to have been John “Sonny”
Franzese Sr. Franzese, who died in February of this year, lived to be over 100
years old. Throughout his entire adult life, he was involved in organized crime
and other criminal activity. As a leader in the Mafia, he allegedly masterminded
dozens of violent crimes, such as home invasions and bank robberies on both
coasts; he was also deeply involved in the entertainment industry as well. In
his later years, betrayed by his own son and becoming the oldest inmate in
Federal custody, he also became emblematic of the Mob’s declining fortunes in
America as well.

Early Years

The youngest of 19 children, Franzese was born in Naples
Italy. His parents were naturalized US citizens who were visiting at the time,
and soon returned to their adopted home of Brooklyn, New York. His parents gave
him the nickname “Sonny” at an early age, and it stuck with him for the rest of
his life. While his father earned an honest living as a baker, Sonny dropped
out of high school drifted into the gangs and organized crime so prevalent in
1930s New York.

In 1942, after the United States entered World War 2, Franzese was drafted. However, his time in the military was short-lived; later that same year, the Army discharged him, citing him as being “psychoneurotic with pronounced homicidal tendencies.” Back home he quickly reacquainted himself with the Profaci family (precursors to the Colombo Crime Family) and spent the rest of his life as a Mafioso. By 1950, Sonny Franzese was a made man, and running extortion, loansharking, and other rackets in New York and New Jersey. He was noted as being a top earner and ruthless gangster, and quickly moved up the ranks.

Hit Movies, Hit Records and Mafia Hits 

Ernest “The Hawk” Rupolo

In his Heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, Sonny Franzese was alleged to have been involved in numerous mob hits and other murders; later in life he would brag about killing dozens of people, and about ways to dispose of bodies and avoid getting caught. He was tried for the murder of a Genovese Crime Family mobster who’d turned informant in 1964; the victim, Ernest Rupolo, had been shot and stabbed, then dumped into Jamaica Bay. However, he was acquitted of that crime.

Franzese, who was known to associate with entertainers such as Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., as well as boxers such as Rocky Graziano, was instrumental in moving the Mafia into the entertainment industry. He was part owner of at least two record companies – Buddah Records and Callah Records – both of which he used to launder illegal Mob earnings. He also became involved in the film industry as well. Franzese helped to finance the low budget horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as well as the pornographic film Deep Throat, both of which were extremely profitable for the Mafia. Later in life, Franzese also earned an associate producer credit on the James Caan film This Thing of Ours as well.

In 1967, Sonny Franzese was convicted in a New York court of several high-profile bank robberies carried out by the Mafia and drew a 50-year sentence. He spent nearly a decade in prison and was paroled in 1978. That conviction would confound Franzese for decades; he would return several times to prison for numerous parole violations, as he continued to remain a member of the Colombo Crime Family.

Later Years

John Franzese Jr.

In the 2000s, Franzese emerged as a high-ranking member of the Colombo Crime Family by process of elimination; many of the other Colombo leaders were either imprisoned or deceased. He officially became a Colombo underboss in 2005. However, unrelenting law enforcement pressure continued to take its toll on the New York Mafia, and Franzese came under increasing scrutiny. He was indicted on a variety of racketeering charges involving New York area businesses and his son, John Franzese Jr., was a key witness for the prosecution. Sonny Franzese was ultimately convicted of the charges and, at the age of 94, was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Franzese was released from custody in 2017, at the age of 100; until that point, he had been the oldest inmate in Federal custody. After his release Sonny reconciled with his son, John Jr., whom he had at one point allegedly attempted to have assassinated for acting as an FBI informant. He lived out the remainder of his life in a nursing home in New York, until his death on February 24, 2020, at the age of 103.

A Long Hard Life of Crime

Sonny Franzese was undoubtedly one of the most colorful
gangsters in American Mafia history. He socialized with popular singers and
athletes, and successfully dabbled in the entertainment industry himself.
However, beneath the glitz and glamor, Sonny Franzese was a ruthless mobster
and hardened career criminal. He spent decades of his long life behind bars for
his crimes and, in his 90s, was betrayed and returned to prison based on the
testimony of a turncoat family member. When he was released from custody for
the final time, he was an old man, and the organized crime network he’d helped
build was, like him, a frail relic of the previous century.

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