Why John Franzese Jr. Flipped on His Father, Sonny, One of History’s Most Notorious Mobsters

Soon the Colombos sent John to a private club that was practically empty. John was about to be “taken for a ride,” he says, when one of his cousins ​​happened to walk in. The cousin steered him out of the club—with firm instructions. “There’s nothing your father’s going to be able to do for you,” he said. “It’s over. Stay away from us.”

Thus began a yearslong spiral of homelessness, depravity, and delusion. Years of shooting cocaine and sharing needles had taken a toll. His arms became streaked with rainbow-colored bruises, and he’d contracted HIV. Wearing garbage bags as shoes, he wandered along Queens Boulevard and stared at phone booths, which he viewed as “portals” that linked him to family and friends. He pulled stickups, smoked discarded cigarettes, and turned tricks—anything to finance another $12 vial of bazooka crack.

In 1995, John was arrested for carrying an unlicensed gun. He spent about nine months drying out in jail. Shortly after he returned home, he picked up a message on his answering machine from him. The caller was Rob Lewicki, an FBI agent assigned to New York’s organized crime unit. “Hey Johnny Boy,” Lewicki said. “Give me a call.”

All the Franzeses knew Lewicki, an affable Long Islander who’d for years been openly investigating Sonny. He’d even arrested him a couple times for parole violations. It was a relationship conducted with degrees of mutual professionalism. When Lewicki happened into a local bakery, Sonny offered him bread and cakes. “We’re hoodlums, they’re cops,” Sonny told John. “If they catch you, that’s on you.”

Lewicki periodically called members of the Franzese ecosystem. The point was to build rapport and fish for informants. The Franzeses, including John, would offer a polite “no” and hang up. They were fiercely loyal to Sonny, who by now was the Colombos’ underboss. Officially, this meant he was second in charge; unofficially, he ran the show. The top spot had been a revolving door since the 1990s, when an intrafamily power struggle known as the Third Colombo War wrought havoc. Multiple Colombo family members died, numerous were arrested, and even civilians got caught in the cross fire.

If Lewicki was a bit more persistent with John, he had his reasons. John was a desperate mope with no allies and nothing to lose. He and John were both North Shore guys. Born a year apart, they’d grown up in the same area at the same time; they’d chased the same girls and cheered for the Jets. “John, listen,” Lewicki said. “I think it’d be good for you to hear what I have to say. Let’s pick a place.”

They met on a secluded park bench in Roslyn. Lewicki was wearing a wire transmitting their conversation to undercover agents stationed nearby. After exchanging pleasantries, they got down to it. John’s life was a mess. He needed to make a move. “John, it pays to have a friend in the FBI,” Lewicki began. “I’ll be able to give you some money every month.”

John was good with that. But he says the main selling point came when Lewicki suggested that John’s cooperation might take legal heat off his parents from him. Sonny was frequently jailed for parole violations; Tina was suspected of credit card fraud. Lewicki believes John’s motives were mixed. John says they were pure, but his feelings were mixed.

“Is there any way you can guarantee that my dad won’t go back to jail?” John asked.

“Your dad would have to cooperate,” Lewicki replied.

“You can forget that.”

“Your dad’s not the target,” Lewicki said. “The target is the Columbus. I’ll try and avoid asking you direct questions about your father. When you hear things that your dad tells you, I need to know that stuff. But I’ll shield you.”

“All right,” John said. “Let’s do it.”

John detailed the family’s inner workings and its various scams. His personality was so relatable, and his intel was so good, that the two men formed a kind of friendship. But it was conditional. “If at any time we find out you’re using drugs,” Lewicki said, “this stops immediately.”

Months later, John was back to his old ways. He was so desperate that he’d taken to guzzling bottles of Tabasco for any barfly willing to pay $100 for the show.

“We’re done,” Lewicki said.

John spent about three years stealing his family’s jewelry, drinking cologne, and bouncing in and out of rehabs and detox cells. He felt Sonny into states of despair and rage. “This fucking guy,” he’d bellow. “He’s killing himself one hour at a time.” Once, after John stole $11,000 from the safety-deposit box, he turned to find Sonny watching him.

“Please don’t run,” Sonny said. “I don’t care about the money.”

John ran.

By 2001, he was shuddering on his mother’s couch and certain his pneumonia was AIDS-related—it wasn’t—when he looked up to see the familiar face. “When you get better,” Michael said, “I want you to come visit me.”

John was seeking a high when he arrived at the palatial house in Los Angeles that Michael shared with his wife and kids. And Jesus. By the mid ’90s, Michael had found God and turned his back on the Mafia. How a capo did this without getting whacked remained an open question. Most people assumed he’d bought his way out, in a seven-figure way—a charge Michael denied. Michael thinks that his wife, faith, and refusal to testify against former associates has safeguarded him. Regardless, now he was a motivational speaker and author (Quitting the Mob).

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