By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Shortly before she managed to get involved in a full-throttle family screaming and shoving match outside her husband's racketeering trial last week, Tina Franzese, 75, finally caught the attention of her favorite son.
"Now he sees me," she said, a mother's loving smile lighting her face. The tiny woman stood in the first row of the gallery in courtroom 10A, waving at her child.
At the other end of court, John Franzese Jr., 50, stepped off the witness stand and looked her way. He gave his mother a small, waist-high wave, the kind boys make when their parents embarrass them in front of their friends. "Look at him," she sighed, as marshals led him away. "He's so tired."
With good reason. He had just completed his second grueling day providing the testimony that prosecutors need to send his father, a 93-year-old Mafia legend named John "Sonny" Franzese, to prison again, presumably for the last time.
Which is just fine with Tina Franzese, wife of Sonny. After her son exited the court, she signaled her husband as he rolled by in a wheelchair, on his way to the men's room. He nodded at her. Moments later, the hallway filled with shouts. "How dare you!" yelled the mother. "Leave him alone!" screamed a stepdaughter. "Son of a bitch! Shut up!" yelled the father. Security was summoned. Tina Franzese was held, questioned, and eventually handed a summons for "unusual noise."
"I told him to plead guilty," she explained later. "There's nothing left for us. He's the last child I have. Just leave him alone, let him go."
As fine a job as The Sopranos did imagining the dysfunctional home life of a mob boss, it apparently fell well short of the real thing. This was clear last week as the Franzese family saga played out in Brooklyn federal court, proving again that life trumps art.
For starters, there was the main event. In one corner of the courtroom was John Jr., an ex-junkie who once robbed his girlfriend's home and ripped off his best friend, putting a gun to his head. Dirty needles gave him HIV, but you'd never know it to look at him. He's a fine-looking fellow with a prizefighter's build and a few tough rounds behind him.
Once he kicked his habit, he says, he discovered his true path, which led him directly to the witness stand. He signed a cooperation agreement with the FBI, agreeing to wear a secret wire on his father, his cousins, and several old friends during a nine-month stretch of 2005. He did so, he testified, "to make up for what I had done in my life."
In the other corner sat Sonny Franzese, reputed underboss of the Colombo crime family and one of the last survivors of the Mafia's prime time, the era of Sinatra and the Copacabana. He once controlled most bars and nightclubs on Long Island. He was the muscle behind successful record labels, a backer of such audience-pleasers as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Deep Throat.
These days, he sits through his trial on extortion charges beside three other defendants, clutching a cane. He holds down the far end of the defense table, the better to make his escape to the bathroom. When he needs to go, which is often, he puts a hand on an assistant's shoulder, who leads him slowly out the door. The wheelchair is for longer hikes. Cane and prostate aside, Sonny Franzese looks pretty good for his age. His dark mane of hair is thinning but still mostly there, as is the thick bull neck that helped convince gangland rivals not to cross him.
Behind him is a support team three benches deep, consisting of relatives and assorted fellow travelers wearing XXL jerseys. In another twist that The Sopranos team would never dare, the spokesman for this family faction is his adopted son, Michael, 59, a dapper former mob capo who made millions in a gasoline tax scam in the 1980s before doing his own stint as an FBI informant. Unlike his younger brother, Michael carefully avoided having to testify against his own family, instead giving up an old music distribution partner of his dad's. His own true path led him to become a born-again Christian. He now works as a motivational speaker advocating repentance. His books include I'll Make You an Offer You Can't Refuse.
Outside the court last week, the ex-informant lamented that his little brother had followed in his footsteps. "It's very hard to see this," Michael said. "My family's taking it hard. I feel the worst for my father. He's very hurt. He always had a soft spot for his kids."
Actually, whenever he stared at the son on the stand, the father looked like he wouldn't mind getting the witness in a nice, tight hammerlock.
The one with the true soft spot for this son is the defendant's wife. Tina Franzese is a little spitfire of a woman. If the mob practiced gender equality, it would be easy to see her high up in the ranks. In court, she sat in the press row, as far from her husband's allies as she could manage. She scolded reporters for having repeated her husband's lawyer's opening argument, that Sonny Franzese is more underling than underboss. "His own wife beats him up and abuses him," attorney Richard Lind told the jury.
"It's a horrible lie," she snapped. "I don't slap. I'd rather knife." After 53 years of marriage, she said, she had finally tossed her husband out. "I wouldn't let him in the house anymore. Enough already. I don't want to see any more parole officers." She was there, she said, to support her son. "He's not testifying against his father. He's testifying against his way of life. He wants all of this to end."
Yes, she allowed, she and Sonny had once been madly in love. They met at the old Palladium on a Wednesday night in 1954, Tito Puente's orchestra playing. At the time, she was a teenaged head-turner, checking coats at the Stork Club. Montgomery Clift, who was still making up his mind which team he played for, fancied her as well, but the good-looking mobster on his way up won out. He brought three kids by a first wife to the union; Tina, at 16, had a baby, Michael. They made a comfortable home in a Long Island ranch house and had three children of their own, John Jr. and two daughters, both of whom are gone now, one due to drugs, the other to cancer.
Back then, Sonny Franzese's name headed the Mafia hit parade. Life magazine gave him a 28-page spread. Newsday ace Bob Greene wrote a front-page series, "The Hood in Our Neighborhood." In 1967, the dream of suburban mob splendor crashed when Sonny was convicted of running a bank robbery ring. He got 50 years. He managed to parole out, but many people, on both sides of the law, believe he was framed. "He was no angel, but he was innocent of that one," says Michael Pollack, a veteran ex-prosecutor and defense attorney who fought to win Franzese's appeal and wrote an unpublished book about it, titled Substantial Justice.
On parole, Sonny remained a target. Five times, he was nailed for hanging with his old gangland pals, each violation earning a prison hitch.
"John was six years old when his father went to prison. What kind a childhood is that?" asked Tina Franzese, standing in front of federal court, summons in hand. "When Sonny came out, he sent John on errands. He never let him alone. I was the best thing that ever happened to him. But I'm done with him. Finished."