By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.
There has been plenty written about John “Sonny” Franzese: books, newspaper articles, stories in magazines, web-site reports. People who know nothing about the Mafia in America know about Sonny, especially over the last few years, as he gained media notoriety as the oldest prisoner in America’s penal system. A man who, in his later years, seemed to spend more time locked up than running free.
Although they occupied a landscape filled with danger from the law and each other, a lot of mob guys lived well beyond the traditional prescribed threescore and ten years. Under observation by a federal task force in Florida, one, a member of the Genovese Family, on a wiretap offers his service to carry out a hit for the boss. The anxious shooter was in his nineties.
Sonny will live to be over a hundred. In fact, that is his age when the government finally releases him from his last prison sentence. By then, relatively immobile, chronically deaf, with poor vision and multiple other health issues, it is hard to believe he is the same man who, for over seventy years, created so much terror and mayhem in his own corner of New York. Like someone holding a royal flush, minus the ace, he was shooting the moon. The keys to the kingdom only come to those who aim high.
There are tracers from this point in his life back to the beginnings where fate, destiny, kismet, call it whatever grew like some primal source making up the gemstones of his criminal profile. It started with his father, a man whose background and provenance are as elusive as his son’s would be clearly defined.
Photo: Sonny Franzese as a young man.
From the region of Campania, somewhere in the teeming mass that is Naples, in Italy, Carmine Franzese, married to Maria Covola, raises a large family. Some sources claim eighteen, as he is part of a criminal family, this one called Camorra, a mafia-type criminal organization with its roots in Campania since perhaps the 18th century when the word first originated.
Sony is born in 1917, although his eldest son claims it was two years later. The baby arrives in a tenement, or on a steamship, en route to the Americas. It’s as vague and confusing as many stories of immigrants are, especially those whose future lies in the uncharted Saragossa Sea of the criminal underworld. Maria is the one who calls him Sonny, the name by which half of New York will come to recognize him by over the next one hundred years.
On their arrival in New York, the family eventually settles at 346 Leonard Street, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which will be home to Sonny in his formative years. Carmine, known also as “Tuttie the Lion” will open a bakery and then a social club on the corner of Leonard and Jackson Street, and almost certainly become part of the local Camorra gang.
Although relatively small numerically, compared to the sprawling, often inter-related Mafia groups in New York, lawmakers recognized them as a vicious group of criminals. Carmine probably linked into the nearest geographical clan, known as the Navy Street Gang, which eventually merges with another ‘ntrine as they call their family unit in Naples, this one in Coney Island, and then at some stage, they all become redundant and members either die, move on or become part of the five Mafia families that are forming across the boroughs of the city, emerging like some social primal life force from the slums and ghettos of Americas fastest growing city as the 20th century begins.
Carmine, notorious for his barbarity, rumored to use his bakery ovens for more than creating bread but sometimes for disposing of bodies, has a brother, Onofrio, who is allegedly even more violent, stringing up a victim in the basement of the social club, and using a blowtorch on his feet. With a family like this, it’s hard to visualize Sonny growing up to be the family priest. Instead, a high school dropout, according to legend, at the tender age of fourteen, they brought him into the Mafia crime family under the control of Joseph Profaci, a South Brooklyn based arm of New York’s Mafia.
Selwyn Raab, a reporter for the New York Times, states Sonny was “brought” into the Colombo Crime Family in 1950. He was in fact sponsored by capo Sebastiano “Buster” Aloi when he was thirty-three, which sounds a lot more convincing.
He will stay a member until the day he dies, living by its rules, with the inflexibility of a crowbar, the weapon he no doubt used on more than one occasion to enforce his reasoning. Which would tremble the lips of the toughest bruiser.
On one occasion, in a wiretap during 2006, he relates that the best way to dispose of a victim’s body is by chopping it up and feeding the parts into a garbage grade waste-disposal. What is wrong with a wood-chipper in a quiet place is an obvious reaction, however, the dialectic of Sonny Franzese, a mobster of a generation long gone, is perhaps understandable. It’s all about “hands on.”
With fingers in so many pies, he must have operated at almost the speed of light to keep up with himself. Generating money as though he had access to a printing press, he earned from extortion, illegal gambling, money-lending, scams involving flea-markets, pornography and drug-trafficking. He managed boxing promotions and became a significant force in the recording industry.
He is very close to Cristoforo Rubino, an active narcotics dealer in the Profaci Family, who dies one muggy night in a gutter at 130 Central Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn, July, 1958, courtesy of two bullets-head and heart. Rubino was about to give evidence in the forthcoming trial of Vito Genovese under indictment in a major drug dealing case. Dead witnesses always trump the other sort. Sonny will accept that dealing out the grim reaper and suffering it as a receivable are simply conjunctions in the endless narrative of New York’s underworld. His relationship with Rubino may have been the reason the Federal Bureau of Narcotics listed him in their records, although they never arrest Sonny for drug trafficking.
- READ: Get The Right Man.
By this period in his Mafia career, Carmine the Lion had died in 1957, and Sonny has married, a second time around, to a young woman called Christina Capobianco. They have three children, to keep her existing baby company; he will grow up and become as famous as his adopted father, but for all the wrong reasons. Another complicated story.
As the sixties emerge, no doubt to his utmost chagrin, Sonny becomes hot news in the media. Both Life Magazine and Newsday, bring out major articles about him, one called, “The Hood in our Neighborhood,” which must have done wonders for property values in his street in Roslyn, Long Island. Shrub Hollow Road would never be quite the same way again.
By then, he had moved there with his second wife. She came with a built-in family, a little boy called Michael, who may have been the son of Sonny. A coat-girl at The Copacabana, or a cigarette-girl at The Stork Club, history is vague on this, she meets Sonny when just seventeen. To avoid the ignominy of an illegal child, she marries a man called Frankie Grillo.
Then, in 1959, Sonny divorces his first wife, Anne Schiller, leaving her with their daughters and son, at their home in Jefferson Street, Franklin Square, and moves his new bride and her child to another part of Long Island, and starts a second family, adding a son and a two daughters. Grillo conveniently disappears from the scene.
All of this is setting the stage for a tragedy of King Lear proportions, a monumental mix of betrayal, misfortune, greed, jealousy and more kinks and blind corners than the average maze. A daughter of Sonny tells a friend on day, “My family isn’t normal. Were not normal.”
It will all unwind before court rooms and media scrutiny in the second, long half of Sonny’s life.
Pre the John Gotti era, hoodlums like Franzese lived their lives in shadowland. Publicity was anathema to their peculiar way of business, but he was about to become a media target, not because of his alleged lifestyle, but because the law was coming down hard on a man the police referred to as “the big comer in Cosa Nostra.” Arrested a dozen times since the age of eighteen on charges of rape, assault and attempted extortion, courts had found him guilty only twice, on minor gambling offences. Now, his past was catching him up with a vengeance.
Allegedly, the underboss of the Profaci family from 1964, they had bumped him from a crew chief to number two under the new leader, Joseph Colombo, who had taken over running the family following the death of Profaci from cancer in 1962. When a gunman seriously wounds Colombo at a rally near Central Park in 1970, Sonny would have been favorite as the next boss, except he was in prison serving a life sentence for bank robbery. Everything had turned to custard for him three years before.
1967 would be his annus horribilus. A year for him to remember, for all the wrong reasons.
The law hit him with multiple cases-homicide, running a bank-robbery crew, a multi-million bookmaking ring in Manhattan, and the brains behind a home invasion of a wealthy jukebox operator who lived in Oceanside. Prosecutors for Manhattan, Queens and Nassau County were all gunning for him. By the time the year unraveled, they would find him innocent on three charges but guilty on the only one he probably never was involved with.
- READ: Being Ernest.
A low-level street thug, fifty-two-year-old “Ernie the Hawk” Rupolo (right), had snitched on Vito Genovese and five others for the murder in 1934 of Ferdinand Boccia. Genovese fled America in 1937 to avoid prosecution and returned to America in 1947. If revenge is a dish, best cold, with Rupolo, it is permanently congealed by the time someone murders him in 1964. Some sources allege Sonny had the killing carried out as a favor for Genovese, although there has never been evidence that the two men were close enough for that to occur.
After a long and complex trial, the jury didn’t think so either, and acquitted him on the charge. Of interest, John Cordero, the leader of the bank-robbery squad, is married to Eleanor, former wife or de facto of the late “Hawk.” Cordero and his gang give damning testimony against Sonny, and the court finds him guilty on two counts, sentencing him to fifty years in prison.
His appeals exhausted, Sonny enters Leavenworth Prison, Easter 1970. Somehow, he gets early release and is out by 1979. However, his parole conditions will haunt him for the rest of his life. He has forty years left of time unfulfilled and spends a large part of it in and out of the slams for violating the terms of his release, basically meeting with gangsters according to the federal agents or cops carrying out surveillance on his daily jaunts around his mob kingdom. Throughout his long life, he will spend many years behind bars. And yet, he keeps on doing it, driven by his own code. He was, according to one writer, “the real gel.”
With the dawn of the new centennial, Sonny is not only moving into the age of the octogenarian, he is also becoming the victim of the seismic shifts within his families, the biological and the criminal ones.
Carmine Persico, the family boss, is now in prison, since the famous Commission Trial of 1985, and will stay there forever. The Colombo Family is unique in that it suffered the upheaval of not one internecine conflict, but three, stretching from 1960 until 1993. Sonny will weather storms that come and go, but not be so lucky in his biological family.
- READ: Legendary New York Mafia boss Carmine Persico was the ultimate survivor, up until his death behind bars
His eldest son, Michael, inducted into the Colombo Family and made a crew chief, calls it a day and resigns from the mob in 1989. This is relatively unheard of, as the Mafia owes its strength to its power. You stay in it until you die, or they shelve you and put you out to pasture. Just what effect this has on Sonny is hard to comprehend.
Just a few years earlier, Carmine Persico, the boss of the family, had demoted Sonny down to soldier, claiming it was for his own good, to keep the heat off him. It was an open secret that Persico was doing this to protect his own flanks, well aware how dangerous Sonny could be even as an elderly man, on a continual escalator in and out of jail. Persico goes down for life on the famous Commission Trial of 1985, and Sonny goes back into the penal system the following year.
His daughter, Gia, dies from her drug habit in 1990, and Tina drifts away from a lifetime of strife, and endless battles with a man whose code of conduct makes him an endless target for the law. He lived by a set of rules that makes flexibility an oxymoron.
John (left), his youngest son, becomes an associate within the Colombos, but is not built like his father and brother. The money and power fill him like a helium balloon and he drifts eventually into the world of drugs, and becomes infected with HIV. Trying to shake off his habit, he moves to California. Sometime around 2004, he becomes a CW, cooperating witness, for the FBI. Wearing a wire, he records conversations with mobsters over eighty times. Including his own father. He does so well, reintegrating himself into the mob, there was talk about him being sponsored into it, the step before induction.
By 2008, the government pulls John from the field, and he joins the Federal Witness Protection Program. In 2010, he is living in Indianapolis when he is called to testify in the last trial his father will face in a criminal life that has stretched across almost eighty years. Racketeering and extortion. Sonny has been shaking down yet again, this time, two Manhattan strip clubs. For extra juice, he went after a Long island pizza place.
Sex and Pizza, the two things New Yorkers can’t allegedly live without. We may say whatever else about Sonny, but he knew his market, and always did his research.
Of interest, in an always interesting parade of fact and fiction that merges the make believe with the unbelievable when covering the New York Mafia, this is only the second time Sonny has actually been in a courtroom in almost fifty years.
Asked to identify his father, John points to a man sitting in a wheelchair, dressed in a yellow shirt.
Addressing the court, John says: “I’m not talking about my father as a man. I’m talking about the life he chose…. This life absorbs you. You only see one way.”
His brother had done the unimaginable and walked away from the mob, and now it was his turn to do something, perhaps even more disturbing, by Sonny’s code, breaking the oath of silence and testifying against his own father.
After a scene in the men’s bathroom, when Tina physically abuses Sonny for not pleading guilty, and so allowing John the chance of mitigation on his testimony, he mutters in the courtroom, “Nothing matters to me. My own son turned on me.”
Someone later alleged that Sonny puts a hit out on John for testifying, although this is never confirmed.
Found guilty, he goes back to the place that he has known for home for so many years. A prison cell. This time, because of his age and infirmities at a prison hospital.
In February 2017, he celebrates his 100 birthday. Four months later, he leaves the judicial system for the last time, discharged from the Federal Medical Center in Devens, Massachusetts. Coming home to Greenpoint, in Brooklyn, where it had all begun. Staying with a daughter after his release, he finally moves into The Regal Heights Nursing Home, in Jackson Heights and dies in February 2020. He had been a free man for almost three years.
His lifetime is filled with conflict, endless danger, betrayal and treachery, and a family narrative that would leave most soap operas for dead. It is hard to comprehend how Sonny Franzese could live through a normal lifespan yet alone achieve the status of a centenarian, considering the chances are 0.004%****
Tina had gone on Easter Sunday, 2012. The grim reaper came for her carrying a bag marked cancer.
At least once source claims she had become so destitute towards the ends of her life, she was living in her car.
They held the funeral for Sonny at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Brooklyn.
In line with the simple, somewhat plain surroundings, the funeral ceremony for Sonny Franzese was brief. Monsignor David Cassato blessed the coffin, and claimed, addressing the few people who were attending the ceremony, “Sonny died with Christ and he will rise with Christ,” asking only that the congregation pray they would forgive the mobster his trespasses along with the endless litany of other reproachable things he’d done in his life, so escaping Hell and joining “the company of saints” in God’s Heaven.
Following the service, his family buried him in Saint John Cemetery, in Middle Village, Queens, the last resting place of some of America’s most notorious gangsters.
If a fashionable synonym for saint is angel, in the great beyond, being Sonny Franzese, the only angels he will probably meet will be the ones on motor bikes.
You’re alone. And slowly you begin to discern the queer outline of what’s to come: the bend in
the river beyond which, moving steadily, head up (you hope), you will simply vanish from sight.
- A Matter of Timing by Lauris Edmond.
Cantalupo, Joseph and Renner, Thomas C. Body Mike: St. Martins Press. 1990. New York.
Capeci, Jerry. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to The Mafia: 2002. Indianapolis.
Salerno, Ralph. Tompkins, John S. The Crime Confederation: 1969. Doubleday & Co. New York.
Cage, Nicholas. Mafia USA: 1972. Playboy Press. Chicago.
Franzese, Michael and Makra, Dary. Quitting the Mob: 1992. Harper Collins. New York.
Life. August 30, 1968. Volume 65, No 9, Pages 30-57.
Jacobson, Mark. His Lips Are Sealed: 2020. https://pleasekillme.com
Robbin, Tom. The Franzese Mob Rat Themselves Out: Village Voice. June 15, 2010.
Zeman, Ned. John Franzese Jr. Flipped on One of History’s Most Notorious Mobsters—His Father—And Lived to Tell the Tale https://www.vanityfair.com › contributor › ned-zeman. June 23, 2022
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