Longtime Colombo Big-Shot Sonny Franzese Outlived Generations

“My father went through twenty damn years of aggravation, my mother’s a nervous wreck, my brothers and sisters are all wrecks. Where is all this honor and this baloney? You can’t believe in this damn oath when you’ve got a family to think of. What about them? My mother’s been alone for seventeen years. So which is the more honorable stand? My father’s position is: This is how I’ve lived all my life, and I don’t want anybody to ever say that I was a rat or a snitch, so I’m gonna die this way. O.K. I guess I can relate to that. But I’m in a different position. I’m thirtysomething years old. I’ve got six children, I’ve got a young wife. And I’ll be damned if I’m gonna put them through what my family had to go through. Especially for something I no longer believe in."
--Michael Franzese

John (Sonny) Franzese was convicted of masterminding bank robberies back in the 1960s. Many have long believed Franzese was framed.

A classic bit of self-justifying bullshit among some law enforcement personnel who abuse their power goes like this: "Well, if he didn't have anything to do with this, we certainly know he's committed other crimes -- so it doesn't matter. He belongs in prison, anyway." 

That illegal mindset has put many an innocent man away in prisons -- gulags, wherever and whatever the buildings are called.

He was sentenced to 50 years. Once paroled, he was sent back inside five times for visiting old friends, most of them convicted felons on the “do not associate” list.

Just about everyone wrote that when Franzese was last convicted, he'd leave in a box.

Franzese was insultingly dubbed The Nodfather for his habit of occasionally nodding off during the three-week racketeering trial. Reports then noted somewhat comically how he jolted awake when the jury came in to deliver its verdict, convicting him of racketeering -- specifically, for shaking down the Hustler and Penthouse strip joints in midtown Manhattan.

After more than a half-century in the Mafia, the legendary gangster was done in by the testimony of his own son, John Jr., a drug addict who recorded hundreds of hours of incriminating conversations with his father as a government informant.

"It's hard to understand how a jury, all of whom have families, would tolerate a son setting up his father, essentially sending him to death behind bars," Michael Franzese, Sonny's stepson and a former capo who left the mob years ago.

After Brooklyn Federal Judge Brian Cogan revoked bail, Franzese knew the routine that was to follow: he slipped his belt out of the pants loops, pulled fistfuls of cash out of his pockets, as well as his wallet and a wad of business cards and handed them over to his defense attorney, Richard Lind.

Franzese's advanced age was not discussed in deliberations, one juror later remarked.

Franzese's words, caught on tape, were about as criminating as it gets. He boasted about being "official" underboss of the Colombo crime family, one of the nation's youngest and most violent.

As for the defense mounted by his lawyer, it was that Sonny was an insecure old man living on Social Security.

At least, the jury acquitted Franzese of shaking down a pizzeria while he was in jail; co-defendant Joseph DiGorga was recorded expressing his anger that the pizzeria saw fit to only give Sonny a free slice once in a while.

Back in the day, Franzese was fast friends with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.; he also was alleged to have been one of the financiers of Deep Throat, the most successful porn flick ever, pulling in so much cash, Colombo mobsters literally weighed it on a scale versus counting it out.

Alleged stone-cold killer: he was never convicted of murder.

The Friends of Ours blog noted that the Colombo crime family "long has been involved in the smut rackets -- massage parlors, porn distribution, jiggle joints, sex clubs -- and Sonny Franzese allegedly had an interest in the porn classic Deep Throat. At one time Franzese allegedly did business with reputed Genovese capo Matthew Ianniello who was a dominant player in the gay bar industry. An October 8, 1967 article ("Mafia Increasing Investments in Business on L.I.") by Charles Grutzner from the New York Times states: '"Franzese is reported to have a concealed stake in several bars, motels and cocktail lounges, including places patronized by homosexuals. A sideline in the operation of such spots is the blackmailing of wealthy or prominent patrons."

Years ago, Franzese -- in a move that made one newspaper reporter call him the William Levitt of the Mafia -- supposedly served as leading spokesman in convincing his criminal cohorts to move their families to Long Island.

Following the law of unintended consequences, some believe that his call to "go East, young mob members" spawned a new generation of "young Turks" -- young mobsters who grew to be less insular than their immigrant parents or grandparents, as well as less bound by their codes. You can see where this theory goes....

Sonny Franzese was born in Naples and raised in Brooklyn. Eventually, he allegedly was Colombo crime family underboss and his sphere of influence extended from Queens to Long Island, where he lived. He has been on parole since serving a prison sentence for the bank robbery conviction.

However, he'd been acquitted of a 1964 gangland slaying, though in the bank robbery case, a prosecutor repeated allegations that Franzese had personally whacked some ''30 or 40 or 50'' mobsters during his rise to power.

Organized crime figures of Sonny's generation shunned the public spotlight -- they also lived frugally (to a fault) and only showed their gangster sides when safely ensconced inside their insulated social clubs.

Most of that generation were either immigrants or first-generation Americans raised in neighborhoods where the Mafiosi dominated.

One figure, Frank Mari, who vanished in 1969 was known for spending nearly every waking moment of his life pressing clothes in his dry cleaning store on Chrystie Street downtown. Still, he apparently found time to get into the thick of things when the Bonanno crime family factioned off for the "Bannan War." Supposedly the Commission named Paul Sciacca the new boss of the Bonanno crime family. Sciacca promoted Mari to be his underboss, while another Sciacca underling, Michael "Mike" Adamo, was named consigliere. Mari and Adamo allegedly began plotting against Sciacca, but their plans were revealed. On September 18, 1968, both men disappeared, as in forever. Philip "Rusty" Rastelli, a former Bonanno loyalist who switched allegiance to Sciacca at the start of the war became a top suspect in the case for New York City police. Rastelli, promoted to caporegime of the old Mari crew, was never charged for the two vanished mobsters. Rastelli later was named boss himself, allowing for the rise of Joseph Massino years later.

Exceptions to the low-profile old-school gangsters were always around. Frank Costello, anyone?

Then you have the strangely counter-cultural stories of mob bosses like Joseph Colombo, who organized street rallies to protest FBI discrimination against Italian-Americans (and was whacked by his own people for it, allegedly).

Joseph Bonanno wrote and published his memoirs, which supposedly stimulated a historic blow against the mob in the form of the Commission Case. Was that Bonanno's revenge for his fellow bosses running him away from "the volcano" as New York was termed?

They don't make em like Sonny Franzese anymore -- whether that's good or bad, I can't honestly say, given the times were in....