Underworld figure John “Sonny” Franzese , once the oldest inmate in the US federal prison system, has died at the age of 103.
Franzese was the second-in-command of the Colombo crime family in New York City until well into his 90s and was described by prosecutors as one of the Mafia’s most fearsome killers.
He was born on 6 February, 1917, in the Italian city of Naples, the youngest of 19 siblings.
He grew up in Brooklyn, where his father ran a bakery.
After dropping out of high school, Franzese worked at the bakery before being drafted into the army in 1942.
He was discharged later that year due to his “pronounced homicidal tendencies”, although he blamed this on a mis-understanding: he had simply wanted to “kill” the enemy rather than do kitchen duties.
Once back in Brooklyn, his brawling and boxing gained the attention of the Profaci organisation, one of New York’s five original Mafia families and later known as the Colombo crime family.
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He was inducted in 1950 at the age of 33 and was soon moving up the ranks of organised crime, running extortion, bookmaking and loan-shark rings.
He partied with stars including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr and profited handsomely from stakes in the 1972 porno movie Deep Throat and the 2003 film This Thing Of Ours.
It wasn’t until March 1967 that Franzese was convicted for the first time – for masterminding four bank robberies.
Later that year, he was also tried – but acquitted – over the death of a suspected informer who was shot six times, stabbed 17 times and drowned in Jamaica Bay, weighted down with two concrete blocks.
During the trial, prosecutors told the jury he had boasted of involvement in up to 50 underworld killings.
After three years of unsuccessful appeals over the bank robbery conviction, he began an indeterminate jail term of up to 50 years. He was released in 1978 but was regularly returned to prison for breaching parole conditions.
In 2011, he was convicted of extorting protection payments from three businesses and, at age 94, he was jailed for eight years.
His son John Jr testified against him, saying it was part of an effort to turn his own life around, a betrayal another son Michael described as “devastating”, according to the New York Times.
In 2017, due to his advancing age, the 100-year-old Franzese was released from jail, with authorities saying at the time that he had been the federal prison system’s oldest inmate.
Son Michael, who risked death by renouncing his Mafia ties in 1995, told the New York Times his father was a “chameleon”.
“At home, a loving father and husband, but on the street, a hard-core guy who never had regrets, never would admit to any crime, never give anybody up, never violate his Mafia oaths – a mobster all the way,” he said.
Franzese died at a New York hospital and is survived by three sons, two daughters and a number of grand children and great-grand children.