John "Sonny" Franzese, Sr. (February 6, 1917 – February 24, 2020), was a powerful, old-time and notorious Italian-American mobster who has been a made member in the Colombo crime family for 88 years. Franzese became a made member in 1933, he was inducted into the Profaci crime family (modern Colombo Crime Family) when he was only 16 years old, making him the youngest made member ever to be inducted in the American Mafia. Franzese's career in the American Mafia dates back to the prohibition era, in 1929, at the age of 12, he became an enforcer and servant to future boss of the Commission and the overlord of the American Mafia Lucky Luciano. Franzese has been a member of the American Mafia longer than any mobster in history, which spans 90 years. Franzese has been famous as the oldest active member of the American Mafia. The 103-year-old Franzese is currently the oldest living gangster in the world. Franzese is listed as an associate producer of the 2002 film This Thing of Ours, which stars James Caan. He helped finance the $200,000 pornographic film Deep Throat, which generated over $80 million. Franzese also helped finance the The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a classic horror film which earned over $65 million from a $1 million investment. Franzese even masterminded multiple incredibly lucrative organized criminal operations and legitimate enterprises which earned the Colombo Crime Family billions of dollars. Franzese controlled a $10 billion a year extortion, loan sharking, illegal gambling, bookmaking and numbers racket operations, a $1 billion a year pornography and prostitution operation, and a $500 million a year labor racketeering operation.
He has been considered by other mobsters, law enforcement officers and FBI Agents around New York as "one of the toughest guys in the world", "one of most loyal, respected and old-school gangsters who ever lived" and as "one of the most formidable gangsters in American history". For over six decades, Franzese was one of the most powerful, notorious and feared gangsters in America. Franzese has been well known for many decades as a fearsome member of the American Mafia whom would rather die than betray the Mafia or snitch on any member of the organization. Franzese had a longtime reputation for fearlessness, ferocity and brutality, and was notorious for going after and killing anyone who crosses him, or anyone who crosses the Bosses.
For 20 years, Franzese was Colombo family boss Joe Profaci's chief enforcer, personal bodyguard and veteran hitman, and he murdered and tortured dozens of people for Profaci. Franzese is believed by the FBI of killing as many as 300 people. He lives by a code of brotherhood, loyalty, respect, secrecy, and honor for members of La Cosa Nostra. Fellow mobsters have said that he lives to serve La Cosa Nostra (The American Mafia), and lives to loyally serve any boss of the Colombo Crime Family no matter who is boss. John Franzese's son Michael Franzese has said that his dad is a stone-cold gangster, and a 24/7 mafioso, who takes the life in La Cosa Nostra incredibly seriously, and is fiercely loyal to the organization and his boss. His son compares him to a medieval kings-guard, he is completely loyal to the boss of the Colombo crime family, and lives to serve the boss 24/7, no who he is, even if hates him or had a rival with him previously, he will still be fiercely loyal to him and serve him no matter what. John Franzese often expressed to his close associates that he would take a bullet for the boss in a heartbeat, and says that he would rather cut his heart his own heart out before betraying the boss or La Cosa Nostra. Franzese has been dubbed as the "The Kings guard of the Colombo crime family" and the "Colombo family bosses executioner" due to his reputation for extreme loyalty for the boss.
Rise in the Colombo crime family
He was born to Carmine "The Lion" Franzese and Maria Corvola, although his birth year is a source of confusion. Federal prison records say that he was born February 6, 1917. However, his son Michael Franzese says that his father was actually born in 1919. According to some sources, Franzese was born at sea on the ship that brought his parents to New York.
Raised in New York City, in the late 1930s Franzese joined the Profaci crime family (later named the Colombo crime family) under boss Joe Profaci. Franzese bore a close physical resemblance to boxer Rocky Marciano, 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" Although never being arrested for it, court papers accused him of committing rape in 1947.
Franzese operated out of New York City and New Jersey and was involved in racketeering, fraud, and loansharking. He is believed to have been elevated to caporegime or captain in the Colombo family in the mid 1950s and by 1964 he had been promoted to underboss. 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, Buddha Records. The company became quite successful, recordings hits for acts such as Melanie Safka, the Isley Brothers, and Curtis Mayfield. Franzese used Buddha to launder illegal mob earnings and to bribe disc jockies with payola.
In March 1967, Franzese was convicted of masterminding several bank robberies. During the trial, the prosecution produced records claiming that Franzese had killed between 30 to 50 people. In 1970, Franzese was sentenced to 50 years in prison. 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.
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."
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 January 1991, 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.
After the 2005 incarceration of John 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 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 remains the official underboss of the Colombo family.
On January 14, 2011, the 94-year-old Franzese was sentenced to eight years in prison for extorting Manhattan strip clubs and a pizzeria on New York's 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.
Family and Death
Franzese was married to Cristina Capobianco-Franzese; she died in 2012. Franzese had eight children, 18 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
His son Michael Franzese had entered a pre-med program in 1969 as John Franzese originally did not want him to be involved in organized crime. However, in 1971, Franzese decided to drop out of college to help his family earn money when his father was sentenced to 50 years in prison for bank robbery in 1967. After he was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1986, Michael was ultimately released in 1994, retired to California in 1995, and became a born-again 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 resided and reconciled with him; John Jr. had previously voluntarily left the Witness Protection Program. Franzese died of natural causes in a New York hospital, on February 24, 2020, aged 103.