As son sings at Brooklyn mob trial, a once-feared geriatric gangster dozes off in court
NEW YORK – NEW YORK (AP) — If John "Sonny" Franzese — once known as a tough-talking wiseguy, Frank Sinatra acquaintance and porn industry investor — is upset about his son betraying him, he hasn't shown it.
In fact, he's sometimes struggled just to stay awake.
The 93-year-old Franzese dozed off at the defense table during his son's first day on the witness stand last week in a racketeering case charging the geriatric gangster with extorting strip clubs and a pizzeria as underboss of the Colombo organized crime family.
Prosecutors have enlisted John Franzese Jr., a former Colombo associate-turned-paid informant, to help convince jurors that the defendant's frail looks and use of a wheelchair in court are deceiving.
"I'm not talking about my father as a man," Franzese Jr. said Tuesday while concluding three days of testimony in federal court in Brooklyn. "I'm talking about the life he chose. ... This life absorbs you. You only see one way."
Defense lawyers accused the 50-year-old son of trying to cash in on his father's notoriety by getting involved in a reality show and writing a tell-all book. He admitted he once consulted a television producer about "goodfellas" and "how they talk" while doing business.
"That was appealing to these people in California," he said.
This time, the senior Franzese was awake and clutching a cane he sometimes uses to walk, but expressionless behind horn-rimmed glasses.
Michael Franzese, another son and a former Colombo member, said his father was "sick" that his namesake "betrayed him like this." He said his brother had been a "nobody in the mob life" before agreeing to wear a wire during conversations their father.
"He did it for the money," he said after testimony Tuesday. "There's no other reason."
Defense lawyer Richard Lind has argued Franzese Sr., dubbed the "Nod Father" by the Daily News, is a shadow of his former fearsome self, fit only for a rest home.
"People use Sonny's name because Sonny's name meant something back in the age of Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson and maybe the age of George Washington," Lind said during opening arguments.
In a bygone era, Franzese was a regular at the Copacabana nightclub, where he hobnobbed with Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. He also had a stake in the classic porn film "Deep Throat."
Authorities say behind the scenes another informant recorded him bragging about rubbing out Mafia rivals — "I killed a lot of guys" but was "never caught" — and advising that the best way to dispose of body parts was to dry them out with a microwave and grind them up with a garbage disposal.
Franzese was convicted in 1967 in a bank robbery, sent to prison and paroled in the late 1970s. Though never convicted of another crime, authorities say he rose to second-in-command of the Colombos.
He also kept meeting with mob associates in restaurants and other public places — a habit that violated his parole and landed him back in prison multiple times. In 2008, he was arrested on the racketeering indictment and later freed on $1 million bail.
At trial, his son testified that he tried to follow in his father's footsteps after a privileged childhood on Long Island where classmates "thought I was the richest kid in school."
But his mob career crashed and burned with heavy boozing and a crack cocaine addiction. While cleaning up and trying to turn his life around in the 1990s, he agreed to become a cooperator, seeing it as a chance "to make up for what I had done in my life."
There were no similar regrets from Franzese Sr. in remarks to reporters following a pretrial hearing.
"Who cares?" he said about the prospect of returning to prison. "I gotta die someplace."