John "Sonny" Franzese Sr. (February 6th, 1917 - February 24th, 2020) was an Italian-American mobster who was a longtime member and underboss of the Colombo crime family.
In the late 1930s, Franzese worked under Joseph Profaci, boss of the Profaci crime family (later named the Colombo crime family). His first arrest came in 1938, for assault. In 1942, in the midst of World War II, he was drafted to the United States Army, but was discharged later that year classified as "psychoneurotic with pronounced homicidal tendencies". Court papers accused him of raping a waitress in 1947, but he was never arrested in relation to the crime.
Franzese operated out of New York City and New Jersey and was involved in racketeering, fraud, and loansharking. He became a full mafia member in 1950, and served in the crew of Sebastian "Buster" Aloi, father of former Colombo family acting boss Vincenzo Aloi. He is believed to have been elevated to caporegime or captain in the Colombo family in the mid 1950s by Profaci. By 1963, he had been promoted to underboss by boss Joseph Colombo. In the 1950s and 60s, Franzese listed his official occupation as an owner of a dry-cleaning store in Brooklyn.
In 1967, Franzese gained a financial interest in a new recording company, Buddah Records. Franzese used Buddah to launder illegal mob earnings and to bribe disc jockeys with payola. He also infiltrated and began to make money through the owner of Calla Records, Nate McCalla, until the recording label ceased operations in 1977, and McCalla was murdered in 1980.
He was accused of murdering Genovese crime family hitman-turned-informant Ernest Rupolo in 1964 on the orders of Vito Genovese. Rupolo was shot and stabbed several times before his feet were attached to two concrete blocks and his hands tied before being dumped into Jamaica Bay. He was arrested in 1966, and during his trial, the prosecution produced records that claimed that Franzese had killed between 30 and 50 people. Franzese was later acquitted of the murder.
However, on March 3rd, 1967, Franzese was convicted in Albany, New York of masterminding a series of four bank robberies across the country in 1965, and was finally sentenced to 50 years in prison at United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth, , after several denied appeals. Franzese's nephew, Salvatore Franzese, reportedly headed Franzese's gambling operations while Franzese was 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 return to prison on parole violations on at least six occasions.
In June 2008, Franzese, incarcerated for a parole violation, was indicted on charges of participating in murders during the Colombo Wars of the early 1990s, stealing fur coats in New York City in the mid 1990s, and participating in home invasions by police impersonators in Los Angeles in 2006. On June 4th, 2008, Franzese was indicted along with other Colombo mobsters on charges of racketeering, conspiracy, robbery, extortion, narcotics trafficking, and loansharking. On December 24th, 2008, Franzese was released from the Metropolitan Detention Centre in Brooklyn. According to law enforcement, Franzese remained the official underboss of the Colombo family.
Franzese's son, John Franzese Jr. became a government informant. With the help of Franzese Jr.'s testimony, the 93-year-old Franzese Sr., on January 14th, 2011, was sentenced to eight years in prison for extorting two Manhattan strip clubs, running a loanshark operation and extorting a pizzeria on Long Island. Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of 12 years, while Franzese's lawyer asked for leniency based on a variety of ailments, including partial blindness and deafness, gout, and heart and kidney problems. Franzese was denied compassionate release in July 2016. Franzese was released from the Federal Medical Center in Devens, Massachusetts, on June 23rd, 2017, at the age of 100; he died in a New York City hospital three years later.