By Allan Lengel
For AOL News
John "Sonny" Franzese/wikipedia photo
The story line of Colombo family underboss John “Sonny” Franzese, 93, of New York reads something like this: He knew Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. He got booted from the Army in World War II for displaying homicidal tendencies. His son testified against him in trial last year. And the feds recorded him talking about hiding bodies — though he was never convicted of murder.
And now Franzese, a wiseguy’s wiseguy who a federal prosecutor said was responsible for the “glamorization of the Mafia over the past century,” could spend what’s left of his life in prison.
His grandchildren and daughter wrote gushing letters to the judge asking for leniency, but Franzese was sentenced on Jan. 14 in a Brooklyn federal court to eight years for shaking down Hustler and Penthouse strip clubs in Manhattan and a Long Island pizzeria for protection. He reportedly could become eligible for parole at age 100.
“He’s very resilient,” his attorney, Richard B. Lind, told AOL News, commenting this week on Friday’s sentencing. “He took it like a man.”
Franzese was the underboss — or the second in command — of the Colombo crime family, one of five Mafia families in New York. He got there by taking wrong turns every step of the way, authorities say.
“From a very young age, he has engaged in relentless and increasingly brutal violence, starting with an assault arrest at the age of 19 in 1938, then escalating to rape of a waitress in a garage in 1947 and armed bank robbery in 1967,” Brooklyn Assistant U.S. Attorneys Cristina M. Posa and Rachel J. Nash wrote in a court document last month, weeks before sentencing.
“Franzese’s violent nature manifested itself in other aspects of his life as well,” the prosecutors wrote.
He was discharged from the Army during World War II because he displayed “homicidal tendencies”, the prosecutors noted. In 1945, they wrote that his wife divorced him, alleging that he “habitually threatened to disfigure her with a knife.”
An Enforcer Who Led the High Life
Franzese rose through the ranks of the Colombo family and reportedly became a captain in the 1950s with a feared reputation as an enforcer. In time, media accounts had him hobnobbing with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. at the Copacabana nightclub in New York, and investing in the 1972 movie “Deep Throat.” His business interests as a mobster included the Manhattan entertainment industry and the Long Island rackets.
In 1967, Franzese was sentenced to 50 years for bank robbery. He was paroled 10 years later. Over the many years, he violated parole five times for associating with mobsters and returned to prison.
He was charged with only one murder. That was in 1966. He was arrested on charges of murdering a rival bookmaker and dumping the body in Jamaica Bay in New York with cement blocks chained to his feet, federal authorities noted in a court document. He was acquitted.
Still, federal authorities insist he was involved in “countless murders,” noting in a court document that he couldn’t keep track of them all, telling an associate in 2006 that he had “killed a lot of guys … you’re not talking about four, five, six, 10.”
On April 18, 2006, authorities noted in a document that he told the associate how to get rid of a body by dismembering the corpse in a kiddie pool and drying the severed body parts in a microwave before stuffing them in a commercial-grade garbage disposal.
In October of that year, he told the associate they would have nothing to worry about if they were patient when getting rid of a murder victim.
“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 just to leave the body in the street.”
The feds also had recordings of him instructing associates how to shake down businesses, saying in one instance, “If he don’t give it to you, leave ‘em on the floor.”
In June 2008, while still in prison for parole violation, the underboss was indicted along with other associates on racketeering and extortion charges for shaking down strip joints and a pizzeria. He was released from prison in December of that year.
Dozed Off During Son’s Testimony
At trial last summer, he hardly appeared like a man to fear. News accounts had him walking with a cane, being wheeled out of the courtroom in a wheelchair to go to the bathroom and sleeping during some of the testimony.
His son John Franzese Jr., 50, a former Colombo associate who became an FBI informant and wore a wire to record his father’s incriminating words, testified against him last June.
“I’m not talking about my father as a man,” he testified. “I’m talking about the life he chose. This life absorbs you. You only see one way.” During some of the testimony, The Associated Press reported the father dozed off at the defense table.
Franzese’s other son, Michael, became a major mobster on Long Island, but eventually settled down with a family and became a Christian motivational speaker. Michael said his father was “sick” that John “betrayed him,” according to the AP.
“He did it for money. There’s no other reason,” Michael said. His brother reportedly received $50,000 from the FBI for his cooperation.
The government alleged that Franzese requested to have his son killed after learning that he was cooperating with the government against Colombo members and associates.
Lind, Franzese’s lawyer, said he plans to appeal the conviction and sentencing, He told AOL News that Franzese “did not comment on [his son testifying] very much. He’s not a big talker.”
Last July 7, a federal jury in Brooklyn convicted Franzese and three other associates. He was taken back into custody.
His attorney, in a Dec. 3 sentencing memorandum, wrote that he hoped for a sentence “sufficient but not greater than necessary.” He noted that his client had a number of “serious maladies,” including gout, high blood pressure, impaired hearing, a heart condition, blindness in one eye, deep vein thrombosis, chronic kidney disease and urinary incontinence.
“As the foregoing should make abundantly clear, a sentence of more than two or three years is in effect a death sentence for defendant,” Lind wrote.
Meanwhile, Franzese’s relatives also asked for leniency in letters to U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan, including his daughter Lorraine Scorsone, with whom he had lived with after getting out of prison in late 2008.
“In your wisdom, please allow him home arrest so that my family, my children and grandchildren can have closure in his last days and his death, ” she wrote Nov. 7 in a two-paragraph letter to the judge. “There is so little time left and we all have benefited from getting to know him in an intimate loving way for the past two years he has been living at my home. We beg for more time.”
The New York Daily News reported that at sentencing Cogan was concerned about giving him what amounted to a life sentence. The prosecution had asked for a sentence of up to nearly 16 years and showed little sympathy for the elderly mobster.
“He has never held an honest job for a day in his life. He’s essentially lived as a parasite off the hard work of others by shaking them down,” federal prosecutor Posa told the judge.
“He is largely responsible for the glamorization of the Mafia over the past century,” she said, according to the Daily News. “For him to die now as a criminal in jail is not an inappropriate response to the lifestyle he lived.”