The Murder That Buried Sonny Franzese

While there's much that I like about the following story, I have to admit upfront that it is a mess -- a difficult-to-read mess that needs revising badly, which I will do when I have some time....

Ernie (The Hawk) Rupolo wasn't destined for underworld greatness; he didn't seem destined to live as long as he did, either, and when he finally did get rubbed out, in 1964, no one was supposed to know what happened to him because his body was never supposed to be found.

John Sonny Franzese and Rocky Marciano
John Sonny Franzese, left, next to the heavyweight champ.

Rupolo was supposed to be just another gangland disappearance of just another hoodlum who got on the wrong side of the wrong person and then fell off the edge of the earth.

That's where the story was supposed to end, only Ernie came back -- floated back, actually, and that set in motion a chain of events that knocked Sonny Franzese off his feet. (Sonny died last week on February 23 at the ripe old age of 103.) No, Sonny wasn't found guilty of Rupolo's murder, which some on both sides of the law believe he had nothing to do with (one of the "mob rats" who testified seems to have been a much more obvious and believable suspect), but a solid argument could be made that the Rupolo murder was the reason Sonny got the 50-year prison sentence for masterminding a crew that robbed banks across the country. (In another irony, many believe Sonny Franzese had nothing to do with that one, either.)

Rupolo's murder stimulated an unprecedented legal onslaught against Franzese, with prosecutors from Manhattan, Queens, Nassau, and the Justice Department’s Eastern District of New York all targeting him. Three years later and Franzese was buried in cases -- for the Rupolo homicide -- for running a $10 million bookmaking ring in Manhattan -- for conspiring to rob banks across the country -- and for a home invasion targeting an Oceanside jukebox company owner.

The Hawk washed ashore on a Queens county beach in the summer of 1964, bloated and gruesome, and still dragging the cinderblocks to which his body had been tied with yellow cord. The public was terrified and repulsed but also curious. (There's a ton of information online about Ernie thanks to a beast of a story published in Life magazine in 1967, which was one of the many sources we've been examining for way too much time. Ernie and his brother Willie were talkers, New York law enforcement was accommodating, and the Life reporter must've gotten a greenlight to milk every drop. The piece presents problems to the 2020 reader in more ways than one. [Including, it's a difficult read -- physically difficult -- available only via Google's underdeveloped books section, which is not mobile-screen friendly and barely desktop friendly.] Its bright depiction of an "epic" confrontation between righteous prosecutors and a man presented as the epitome of organized crime casts shadows over [and reinforces, really] concerning questions about the integrity of the American judicial system in 1967. Never mind that the story is bloated, turgid, pompous -- quite like Ernie Rupolo himself supposedly was, especially in his last few years -- and inadvertently revealing of journalists' silly perceptions of the mob in the late-middle part of the previous century. [To paraphrase: "The Mafia spent top-dollar to hire the best lawyers in town for Franzese and his co-defendants," etc, that sort of thing. Sonny Franzese -- in fact every wiseguy who ever lived who had to put a lawyer on the payroll -- would've prayed to God that there was a "Mafia" to foot their legal bills, even once. We'd have to agree with what Sonny would have said -- in this particular case, there is no Mafia.] What was most shocking about the Life story [more shocking even than the grisly excerpts from the coroner's report that intermittently interrupt the first part of the story and that grow exponentially more irritating with each interruption] is that, for all the information packed into the piece, which unfolds over a dramatic three [yawn] chapters, so many basics were left out, like the name of the crime family to which Franzese was attached. [Though to be (probably way too) honest, after spending hours on many days perusing that clunky story on iPhone, tablet, and desktop, we may have missed a paragraph here and there.] The story tells us all about how Rupolo fingered Vito Genovese -- it even includes part of a transcript of Ernie discussing his testimony against Don Vitone in his own silly words (and the story also includes excerpts from his actual testimony against the psychotic successor to Charley Lucky Luciano), though it was never explicitly highlighted that the murder was done as a favor from Sonny to Vito Genovese. It was implied. In any event, Sonny ordering a murder as a favor is absurd motive... Sonny waited 20 years to kill Rupolo because? Vito's forgotten confidant Mike Miranda supposedly told Rupolo back in the 1940s that everything was cool after the charges against Vito were dropped for the 1930s  killing of the Shadow Boccia [who was Anthony [Fat Andy] Ruggiano's brother-in-law; recall Sonny made a play to get Fat Andy in the Colombo family when the Gambinos passed Ruggiano's name around]. A somewhat better motive was suggested by Ernie's widow, Eleanor, who said Rupolo was killed for trying to muscle in on Franzese’s rackets. “They hated each other. They really, really did,” she said. Ok, that sounds a little more solid.... Unless-- Ernie Rupolo reportedly  was in Kid Blast's crew, which meant Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, was his stomping grounds. As for Eleanor, she turns up in the Life story with her new husband -- John (Blue Boy) Cordero, and if you know who he is, bells should be ringing about now. ... Whether Sonny was involved in the murder or not, he went to court every day for the trial. Guys like Sonny Franzese don't hide who they are. They don't deliver glib John Gotti-like quotes about life to draw incremental exposure in the media, either... What is strikingly conveyed in the Life story is the awesome larger-than-life presence of Sonny Franzese in 1967 at the peak of his power. Interestingly, even in 1967, they stuck practically the same body count to him, which makes you wonder. [Thom. L. Jones, offers a masterpiece on the life of Ernie The Hawk in a story published on Gangsters Inc. that we highly highly recommend.])

Ernie The Hawk Rupolo
Ernie The Hawk Rupolo, the one-eyed hitman who was shot and stabbed.

Self-confessed "gangland triggerman" Rupolo, whose mother had raised him to be Al Capone, met both the gun and the knife....

Rupolo had been reported missing on Aug. 2, 1964, by his then-estranged wife. The police recovered what was left of him off Breezy Point, Queens, on August 24, 1964.

Rupolo's brother identified the remains, and was horrified. What had happened to Rupolo crossed some sort of line, in the view of Willie and his pals, all of them denizens of the shallower parts of the New York underworld.

"I can't see why they had to do it like that, " he'd later say of his brother's fate. "It's not even a clean knockoff. I don't know. It's, I don't know, savages. Shot him, stabbed him... To kill him, that's one thing... Not only me, but even the others, in the underworld, his own friends, they can't figure it out..."

As per the autopsy, Rupolo had been shot, in no discernable order, four times (in the head and chest) with a .38 caliber (the coroner also yanked a fifth bullet from Rupolo's decomposing corpse, a .45, the not-so-decisive result of a disagreement that gave Ernie the nickname, but that's not part of this story) and stabbed 18 times with a knife.

"The body of the deceased ...(bears) not merely the unmistakable signs of murder but, more significantly, evidencing a craftsmanship commonly employed in enforcement of the law of the jungle," as the criminal indictment later noted. "It was tied up, weighted down by concrete blocks and wrapped in heavy chain as well. Obviously, the decedent had incurred someone's deadly animosity, in his lifetime."

Rupolo and a drinking buddy, Roy Roy, had gone to the Coco Poodle, but the brother had been too tired to accompany them. And that was the last time Ernie 's brother saw him alive...

The grisly murder was linked to a man close to newly coronated mob boss Joe Colombo, who was elevated after the 1962 death of Joe Profaci. One of Colombo's first moves was to promote Franzese to capo. At the time Franzese claimed he owned a dry-cleaning store in Brooklyn -- which didn't say diddly about why he also was able to host lavish parties at the Copacabana nightclub in Manhattan that were attended by major Hollywood luminaries of the day including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. A boxing fan, he also palled around with Jake LaMotta (from Martin Scorsese's 1980 film Raging Bull) and Rocky Marciano, to whom Franzese bore an unearthly physical resemblance.

At his 1960s peak, Franzese was among the top mobsters living on Long Island, where he was considered the czar of crime from Brooklyn to Suffolk County— the rackets that fed his more-than-considerable income included bookmaking, loan sharking, and extorting protection money from nightclubs and bars; one of his later efforts allegedly was extracting payoffs from pornographic peep show suppliers. (Not one  of these allegations led to criminal charges against him.)

Sonny cut a unique figure in the mid-20th century American underworld: while he wore the suits, he didn’t smoke or drink and stayed away from the massive pasta lunches other wiseguys enjoyed -- and, in something that definitely contributed to his living such a long life: Franzese said he absolutely abhorred -- and claimed he completely avoided -- sugar, once telling a reporter that he hadn't used it since “1942.”....


Popular This Week

Ex-Bonanno Boss Joe Massino Detailed His Role In Galante Hit (And It Wasn't What You Think)

Prelude To The Galante Murders

Hoodwinked: Restaurateur on Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares Was a Mobster

Bath Avenue Crew Rose High, Fell Hard

Many Ghosts Haunt Witness Protection Program

Skeletal Remains Found Along Receding Lake Near Las Vegas Apparently Belong To Victim of A Gangland Hit