Why Did Longtime Colombo Gangster Sonny Franzese Give Newsday That Big Interview? Some Thoughts

“One time, I met an FBI agent on the street. And he said to me, ‘[On] account of you, we could have broke the Mafia up. We had Joe Valachi, and if you would have opened up, it would have destroyed the Mafia. You wouldn’t help us.’ I said, ‘Go and F yourself!’ And I walked away from him.”
--John Sonny Franzese speaking to Newsday reporters....

John Sonny Franzese

John Sonny Franzese was the ultimate stand-up wiseguy. He was the embodiment of omerta, a man inherently incapable of breaking the Mafia's codes. He spent decades in prison because he refused to name names. Even at the advanced age of 90, he served the sentence handed down rather than talk, even though everyone, including himself probably, thought he was giving the FBI the gift they had craved for decades: the thought of Sonny Franzese dying in a cage.

Guys like John Sonny Franzese simply don't talk to newspapers. They especially don't give huge, splashy interviews with color photographs and a video.

Granted, guys like Sonny Franzese don't usually live to 102 either. So we are treading in uncharted territory here.

Such a high-profile interview at such an advanced age could be viewed as a fitting "swansong" capping a hell of a long career. But, and here's the problem, his career (more than a career, his life) was the Mafia, specifically the Colombo crime family. He's considered legendary because of how long he thrived atop the most dangerous and violent crime family in America. He lived quietly on Long Island with his wife and children and followed a disciplined daily schedule. He had interests in restaurants, bars (including the topless kind), nightclubs, record labels -- even at least one porn flick, the classic “Deep Throat.” His bread and butter businesses were traditional mob rackets such as loansharking and extortion.

He killed about 50 people, the FBI believes. Franzese himself almost admitted as much. In December 2006, mob associate Gaetano Fatato secretly taped Franzese saying: “I killed a lot of guys … you’re not talking about four, five, six, 10.”

Some FBI agents have even admitted to having a grudging respect for Sonny Franzese. In a 2017 Newsday story, Bernard Welsh, a former FBI agent who arrested Franzese several times on parole violations, said: “I think it’s amazing that he stood up. He never gave anybody up.”

Today Sonny, at age 102, still lives on Long Island and certainly would be entitled to do whatever the hell he wanted (so long as it doesn't break the laws of New York State or of the Federal government -- and we say that thinking about his own best interests).

With all due respect, we really don't buy Sonny's stated reason for speaking with Newsday, that bit about "reporters being nice to him back in the 1960s, etc." Still, that's a good answer, a very good answer. It almost betrays a media-savvy mindset.

Granted we're speculating here and certainly don't know if there even is a definitive reason why Sonny Franzese gave that interview. But we certainly can rule out some possibilities. He's not touting a new film or book. That's usually why you suddenly see Matt Damon, say, or Andrew G. McCabe, former FBI deputy director, or name-your-favorite-author (or actress, celebrity, etc.) on The Late Show: they are there to hawk a new film or book or whatever. They didn't wake up that morning and say, Hey, I feel like dropping by Steve Colbert...

So understand that we don't claim to know the specific reason why Sonny gave the interview, we received no confirmation from the Franzese family etc. But we noticed something unrelated to the Newsday story that we believe highlights Sonny's true motive. It's hiding in plain sight. And we believe Sonny gave that interview for a very specific, covert reason. A personal reason.

To argue our point, we first need to supply certain context.

Sonny Franzese served the same prison sentence half his life.

Since getting out on parole in 1982, he's been violated five times. Franzese was forbidden from meeting with wiseguys; he met with them, he was caught, he was sent back ("violated") five times since his initial release in 1982, after he had served 12 years of a 50-year sentence for his 1967 conviction for masterminding a misfit bank robbery ring.

He's been out of prison about 17 years out of the past 52.

Sonny's last two stretches in prison were because of his son John Jr., who Jerry Capeci blew the whistle on after he fingered his dad the first time, around Thanksgiving 2000, writing: "What Sonny Franzese didn't know ... and may not learn until he reads this column, is that his namesake son, John Jr., was an FBI informer and betrayed him to the feds."

"Sources told Gang Land that John Jr., a hard drinking drug abuser who never graduated above the rank of mob associate, tipped the FBI that his dad was going to meet a few crew members that day to talk about their recent indictment."

He gave up his dad to evade drug charges but also to get his mom off the hook for fraud charges. (In the 1980s, John had spent years working to get his old man out of prison. Then he himself helped put him inside, twice.)

After his 2004 release from prison, Sonny met with high-level wiseguys from other families. Sonny was among the topics of conversation between turncoat Bonanno boss Joseph Massino and his then-acting boss, Vincent (Vinny Gorgeous) Basciano. Basciano told Massino that Colombo street boss Thomas (Tommy Shots) Gioeli had formally introduced Franzese to Bonanno capo Nicholas Santora during a sitdown.

Capeci also broke the news about John Jr. being an informant the second time, reporting that Franzese was put away by "a source very close to the (then-)90-year old mobster: his son John Jr., a drug-addled ne'er do-well who has been in and out of rehab, and wore a wire for the FBI against his father and others last year, sources say.

After Sonny learned about Jr.'s initial stint as an informant in the Thanksgiving 2000 violation, he forgave him and allowed him back into his inner circle. (Jr. had cried and denied when Sonny confronted him, as per Gang Land.)

"His son denied it," said the source. "He came home and cried his eyes out saying, 'I would never do that, no matter what kind of trouble I had.' Sonny believed him."

Jr. did more than tell the Fed's where his father was going that second time around. He also wore a wire, provided the FBI with information, and then testified in court.

Capeci also reported: "It's hard to believe that Franzese didn't see the arrest coming, but several knowledgeable sources say he didn't, not until he saw FBI agent Robert Lewicki, who had nailed him two previous times for parole violation (2000 and 1996), standing alongside his parole officer when he walked into the office." Michael Franzese told Capeci that he "wasn't surprised by his (father's) inability to pick up vibes that being called in for a special meeting likely meant another stay behind bars. He told Gang Land his dad was a mere shell of his old self and no longer a high-ranked gangster."

"It's sad, but over the last several months, he's gotten old," he said. "He's still nobody's fool. But in the last year or so he's really aged a lot. He has a touch of prostate cancer and other ills. It's sad to know that he has to go through this."

Michael Franzese broke omerta in the late 1980s. (In 2006, Jerry Capeci wrote that Michael Franzese "implicated his father — who, at age 89, is still the underboss of the crime family, sources say — and scores of others in criminal activities, but never testified against any wiseguys or mob associates along the way." Michael certainly is media-savvy, to put it mildly....)

After testifying and doing what the Feds required of him, John Jr.got a new identity and was spirited away to disappear into the federal Witness Protection Program.

Now that we've weaved together what we hope is sufficient context, we're going to get to our observation...

Newsday published the interview with Sonny Franzese on March 27. On that very same day, an Indianapolis newspaper called the Indy Star published a two-story package loosely based on the New York Mafia. One story was headlined Who is John 'Sonny' Franzese and the Colombo crime family? and the other was: How I befriended a former New York mobster while getting bagels in Indianapolis.

In that second story a freelance journalist happens to meet a guy with a New York accent named Mat.  Let's let her tell it: 

 It was just your normal Saturday, or so we thought. Debbie, Colleen and I had gone through the motions of working out at LA Fitness then bolted across the street for our weekly bagel.

The regulars were always in there — Sherman, Pat and Dorothy. And Mat. Eventually we would know them all and become regulars ourselves. The day we first met Mat, we were simply waiting in line to order when he came up to us, “Hey, Good Morning. How yous guys doing today?”

The three of us grabbed our bagels and sat down near Sherman, Pat and Dorothy. Mat was stationed at his own table covered in books and notepads, pill bottles and cigarettes and a sweating glass of iced tea.

Sherman, in his mid-seventies around that time, shared his stories about growing up black in Ohio in the late 30s and 40s and how his teacher once told him that she wasn't really going to waste time on him because he was just a (racial slur.) Mat was up and down from his table, making his rounds, talking to everyone....

Mat is John Junior Franzese, of course, and that story package looks to us like a carefully calibrated coming out, another badass New York Mafioso making it known that he is out and about. He even checked himself out of the witness protection program. So you can read all about how he now dreams of Hollywood assassins coming to stalk and kill him. The problem of course is that he's not a badass Mafioso.

But even the lowliest mob associate from Long Island can pretend to be Don Corleone out there in the Midwest if he plays his cards right and maybe finds a curious freelance journalist, say..... 

Only if his father happens to be like the closest thing the world has to a real Don Corleone, only if his father is say a guy like Sonny Franzese, the last thing he'd want would be for the old man to go out and give his own story to another newspaper (and a much more high-profile paper based in New York, where the Mafiosi live and breathe) on the same frigging day.

That would really suck for that lowly former associate. 

Reminds us of that saying about how everyone is a gangster... til the real gangster walks in....