John Franzese Jr. Flipped on One of History’s Most Notorious Mobsters—His Father—And Lived to Tell the Tale
John Franzese Jr. was born into mob royalty, but after getting clean and doing the unthinkable—testifying against his own father—he sought out an almost unimaginable forgiveness.
When John Franzese Jr., top right, aided in the prosecution of his own father, longtime Colombo underboss “Sonny” Franzese, he became an instant target—and a pariah to his own family.Illustration by Quinton McMillan. Images from Getty/AP.
John Franzese Jr. is just standing there, 60 years old and still wiry, dragging on a Marlboro Light outside a red-sauce place in Wherever, Indiana, when the feeling returns. This surprises him. Minutes earlier, he’d been working the room in his particular way, greeting waiters by name and ordering off-menu—the anchovies with garlic and tomatoes for himself, the carbonara for his guest—while a Buddy Greco song played in the background.
But as John moves through the restaurant’s parking lot, he stops cold; a half smile tightens his aquiline features.
“The feeling,” he says. “It doesn’t go away.”
He stubs out the cigarette.
“When I’m in this kind of mood,” he says, “I’ll notice where I parked and I’m like, Jeez, I’m in between two cars.”
His deep-set eyes scan a lonely service street.
“A perfect location,” he says. “A dead end.”
He pockets his lighter.
“Three or four cars—it’d be done and over in no time…”
He fishes out the lighter.
“I might have one more cigarette.”
It’s not an everyday thing, the feeling; it hits him less and less as the bad old days—“the days when I was a lying degenerate,” John says, “the days when I was a thieving, disgusting animal”—recede in his rearview. His new life of sobriety and repentance generally keeps him too busy to dwell on the past. But occasionally, when visited by certain sights or sounds, he feels a primal shudder unique to anyone who’s spent years in the Federal Witness Protection Program, living a ghostly life of assumed identities and midnight relocations.
John Franzese Jr. has been looking over his shoulder since 2006, when he became one of the most famous turncoats in Mafia history. Having worn a wire for the FBI, he served as the star witness against the last of the great New York mobsters, Sonny Franzese, underboss of the Colombo crime family. Sonny’s given name was John Franzese Sr. The trial marked the first time that a New York Mafia boss watched his own son (and erstwhile heir apparent) testify against him in open court. And that was just the King Lear element of the Franzese (pronounced: “fran-zees”) family saga, an epic stew of betrayals and tragedies, twists and redemptions that suggests a wiseguy version of the British royals.
“Did Dad kill anyone?” John asked. Michael sidestepped the issue. Made guys never discussed past killings. “But if you’re asked to kill someone,” Michael said, “you got to.”
“There’s never been a mob family in America like the Franzese family,” says John’s former FBI handler, Robert Lewicki. “You can go one step further and say there’s never been a family like this in America.”
Such is the family’s grip that John never fully escaped it, because he never wanted to. Even in exile, even with a price on his head, he never thought of himself as Michael Carter or John Maggio or any other of his “new” identities. He was always John Franzese Jr. Despite all better judgment, he couldn’t shake the urge to see his old man one last time—or to die trying. According to the FBI, his father considered having an associate whack his own son.
This explains why John, the man who would be kingpin, ended up living in Indianapolis. His small, semimonastic life is devoted to living clean and transcending his legacy as a criminal and a rat—a word that agitates him far more than his lingering fears he has about personal safety. “I think of all the people I called rats and all the ways I hated rats,” John says. “Would’ve killed rats. Wanted them dead.” In moments like this, when he’s visited by the past, his impish warmth briefly betrays a clenched ferocity that evokes his father.
“I am a rat. You wanna say that, fine. It’s true, okay?” His eyes narrow. “But there’s a different story to me.”
“Sonny’s son,” they called him. “Or Johnny Boy.”
Such a sweet kid, everyone said. A bit soft and feline, maybe. But everyone liked the little guy who spent his days singing as he romped around Roslyn, a prosperous village on Long Island’s North Shore. The family occupied one of the biggest houses on Shrub Hollow Road; it had a 40-foot-long pool, a putting green, and a “museum room” filled with art.
John was the fourth of Sonny’s six kids, born in 1960. The first three, Maryann, Carmine, and Lorraine were products of Sonny’s marriage to an aspiring actor named Ann Schiller. But mob wives were expected to make babies and dinner, not shampoo ads. So Sonny ditched Ann in 1959 for a teenage “cigarette girl” he reportedly met at the Stork Club. Tina Capobianco was Italian, elegant, and dazzled by Sonny. He dressed immaculately and got the best tables at the Russian Tea Room and the Copacabana. He was a star even among A-list entertainers (Marilyn Monroe, Sammy Davis Jr.), boxing champs (Jake LaMotta, Rocky Graziano), and mob titans (Albert Anastasia, John Gotti). Once, when asked whether he knew Sinatra, Sonny replied, “You should have asked, ‘Did Frank Sinatra know Sonny Franzese?’”
The marriage produced John Jr. and two girls, Gia and Tina. Sonny adopted Michael, Tina’s son who was said to be from a previous marriage, but who Michael attests was his biological father. Sonny was a devoted father with an uncanny ability to separate work and family. He was always home for dinner and loved to cook calzones for the kids.
But he had rules. “You’re gonna do things the right way,” Sonny would say, referring to everything from schoolwork to table manners. He forbade John’s tendency to break out in song, in a kind of altar boy vibrato (“Men don’t sing like that”) and made him read Machiavelli’s The Prince. To defy Sonny’s decrees was to feel his wrath. The same went for Tina, with whom Sonny had a fevered relationship. He loved her and berated her; she responded by spending his money.
By the late ’60s, the Franzeses were the most famous family in town. Sonny was facing two separate trials—one for murdering a snitch, the other for masterminding bank robberies. Anyone who read the papers knew he’d killed upwards of 50 people, and that the New York mob bosses viewed him as their “coming king,” as Newsday put it.
John didn’t read the papers. To be Sonny’s son was to be cocooned by the knowledge that dad owned an enviable dry-cleaning business. John knew why his classmates and teachers whispered about Sonny. He saw the FBI stiffs parked outside the house. “They don’t like Italians,” Tina said. “The government’s trying to frame him.” Proof came when Sonny’s murder trial ended in an acquittal.
The official story continued even after Sonny was convicted in the bank-robberies case. John was nine in 1970 when Sonny began serving a sentence of up to 50 years at Leavenworth. But John didn’t blame Sonny for leaving him fatherless. He blamed the FBI.
That Michael was the one who told him the truth only made sense. They’d shared a bunk bed as kids, and commiserated about their mom’s obsessive housekeeping. The boys were forbidden from reentering their bedroom after she’d tidied it up. John idolized Michael—nine years older, handsome, whip-smart, take-charge. According to John, after Sonny went to prison and Carmine left home for a hippie commune, Michael dropped out of Hofstra University and took on all of his father’s responsibilities.
By now John was midway through his mandated evolution. Out went the vibrato; in came fistfights and football. For kicks, John and his buddies blew up cars with pipe bombs and jumped random guys. He was about 16 in 1976 when Michael revealed that he was a “made” member of the Colombos, the most violent of New York’s “five families”; that he had sworn a blood oath to honor omertà, a code of silence; and that their father was the Colombos’ most feared and powerful captain, or capo. Sonny’s 300-man crew ran an array of extortion and loan-sharking rackets. And apart from that, the old man had lucrative stakes in the music industry (Buddah Records) and porn production (Deep Throat).
“Did Dad kill anyone?” John asked.
Michael demurred. Made guys never discussed past killings.
“But if you’re asked to kill someone,” Michael said, “you got to.”
“And they pay you?” John replied.
“No. You do it out of loyalty.”
John says Michael recruited him; Michael says he wanted John to shun the underworld. But the larger truth was indisputable: Sonny wanted his namesake in the fold, and John went willingly.
Although he remained a “civilian,” John’s status as Sonny’s son and Michael’s wingman gave him VIP access to any nightclub in town. While his classmates were wearing caps and gowns, John was peacocking at Studio 54 and driving a modified Datsun 280Z. He and his high school sweetheart split up, and soon John went clubbing with a different woman every night—including one of his former teachers.
He was 18 when Sonny magically returned home, having been paroled after just under nine years—thanks to lax parole codes and God knows what. Sonny promptly installed John as his driver and messenger. The terms of Sonny’s parole prohibited him from associating with other crooks, so being his go-between was a big deal. Sonny wouldn’t let his soldiers carry messages to the family’s boss, Carmine Persico. But he sent his son.
Soon John “got proposed”—the first official step toward becoming made. He had a prized mentor in Michael, whose meteoric career trajectory was only partly due to his surname. Michael was sharper than most wiseguys. He eschewed nickel-and-dime scams, landing lucrative (and sometimes legitimate) stakes in construction, car dealerships, unions, and the music industry. But his masterstroke, which got him promoted to capo, was a huge bootlegging swindle that involved buying gas wholesale, selling it at below-market prices, and pocketing gas-tax fees. According to Michael, the racket earned him up to $8 million a week. He was even portrayed in Goodfellas, in the famous scene in which Henry Hill enters the Bamboo Lounge. (“That guy, I’m gonna see him.”)
Michael was the front man; John was the pleaser who kept things light and friendly. John says he helped facilitate a deal for a rising R&B singer named Christopher Williams. When Sonny needed a lawyer, Michael and John worked with the notorious fixer Roy Cohn. (Cohn later begged off after the brothers indicated he’d be killed if the appeal failed.)
“We’re all partners,” Michael and Sonny told John. That he wasn’t getting paid as such—and that he still lived in his childhood bedroom—irked John. He wondered whether Sonny and Michael were cashing in on his efforts. Both he and Carmine, who by then was long home from his stint on the California commune, thought Michael was jealous of Sonny’s namesake. It would have been within reason. “When I saw you at your christening,” Sonny told John, “I knew my goal in life was for you to be the boss.” Despite the talk, Michael says Sonny “treated him like gold.”
John saw a side of his father he’d never seen. The old man was a pain in the ass, constantly ordering John to check the rearview for feds. He mocked John’s fancy, air-conditioned cars. “You need cars to make you look good,” Sonny told him. “I make a car look good because I’m in it.”
While cruising through Brooklyn, he’d point out places where he’d done “work.” He always spoke in code; sometimes he punctuated the message by pantomiming pulling a gun from his waistband. By now John knew that Sonny had made his bones by carrying out hits for the bosses; that he’d been discharged from the Army due to “pronounced homicidal tendencies”; and that his taste for DIY “work” continued even as he ascended to capo, when he began ordering hits.
Sonny’s body count also included the slaying for which he’d been acquitted, John concluded. The victim had been shot, stabbed, and submerged in Jamaica Bay (via concrete blocks affixed to his limbs). Whenever Sonny heard about similar cases, he’d explain that air gets into sunken bodies and floats them to the surface. “You got to rip the guts out,” Sonny said, “because it’ll come back to haunt you.”
John was in a Manhattan strip club in the early ’80s when everything changed. He was 23 and driving a cream Cadillac Biarritz. He’d already been hitting the clubs and booze too hard when a buddy offered him a line of cocaine. John, like Sonny and Michael, had always scorned drugs. But now he was too drunk-sick to care.
The first snort set him right, and the next ones fueled him for six months. He helped run one of Sonny’s loan-sharking operations and started shaking down club owners who were selling coke. Soon he said to hell with the money and took coke instead. He was spending every cent he had on blow. And hookers. And suites at the Waldorf. Plus $15,000 a month on silk T-shirts, suits, and shoes.
Michael tried to rein John in. But he didn’t listen. Neither did Sonny, who wanted John to get made. “You don’t understand what’s going on with my brother,” Michael argued. The dispute became moot in 1986, when Michael became the next Franzese to land in federal prison. A conviction linked to his gas bootlegging scam earned him a 10-year sentence and $14.7 million in restitution fees.
Shortly thereafter, a cop caught John about to inject cocaine while sitting in a limousine, the first in a series of drug-related arrests. He dealt heroin and robbed drug dealers, one of whom opened fire on him. In 1990, while John was partying with a hooker, his kid sister Gia called to say she was unwell. John blew her off. Hours later, Gia died of a cocaine overdose.
Sonny’s moment of clarity arrived after he told John to visit a guy who was “a problem”—Sonny-speak for those he wanted killed. Instead, John got high and blew this off too. “Never in my life have I been so embarrassed,” Sonny raged. “The first time somebody asked you to take care of business, you never got it done.”
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. 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 a 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.
The biggest hurdle was the wire. It wasn’t like in the movies, when they implant a microchip in your ear or hide a bug under your cazzone. Lewicki handed John a black gizmo the size of a garage-door opener.
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. 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 Colombos. 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 sent 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 a safety-deposit box, he turned to find Sonny watching him.
“Please don’t run,” Sonny said. “I don’t care about the money.”
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 a 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).
Michael had already lost their sister Gia to drugs. He wouldn’t lose another sibling. “Brother, you can stay under two conditions,” Michael said. “Number one, don’t talk to me about business. I don’t want to be in business with you. And number two, don’t ever dare bring a drug around your nieces and nephews.”
John stayed clean until he didn’t. One day, while wandering through a music store, something caught his eye: a CD by his ex-“client” Christopher Williams. John scanned the liner notes until he found the special-thanks section, which included his name.
This blip of validation was the first in a series of “miraculous stuff” that graced him. The next came when he happened past an A.A. meeting. He considered them fine places to bum smokes and pick up women. But this time felt different, especially when he met a guy named Darryl. “You’re given a gift here,” Darryl said. “This is your new life.”
A fellow 12-stepper delivered John to Odessa House, a sober-living facility that at that time provided free housing and treatment exclusively to recovering addicts in the music industry. John offhandedly told a staffer about his minor link to the business. “Any way you could prove that?” the staffer said.
“Would a CD with my name in the credits be enough?” John asked.
He stayed for nine months. When he left, in late 2002, he was clean.
John found a small apartment in Santa Monica. He stuck close to Odessa House, in part because he’d fallen for one of its staffers, Denyce Rodriguez, an ex-addict. They eventually married.
Thanks to a regimen of weight lifting and HIV-related treatments, which included injections of testosterone and human growth hormone, John looked like a bull shark wearing sweats and a backward baseball cap. His transformation thrilled Sonny, who wanted John in the fold.
But the longer John stayed clean, the more he wanted to stay that way. The mob life would kill him, one way or another. The Franzeses were cautionary tales. His parents’ marriage had become a crucible of rage and violence. The siblings were estranged—to the point that Michael warned Sonny that he smelled a rat in John. Sonny didn’t believe him. Nobody believed anybody, because everybody lied.
“I don’t want to hurt people,” John told Lewicki around 2004. “I can put a stop to this and atone for what I’ve done.”
The plan was simple enough. John would earn the Colombos’ trust by becoming an “earner.” The FBI facilitated his new career as a steroids dealer. They sent him to New York with real pills, for the sake of appearance, and stacks of cash that would become the Colombos “cut.”
The biggest hurdle was the wire. It wasn’t like in the movies, when they implant a microchip in your ear or hide a bug under your cazzone. Lewicki handed John a black gizmo the size of a garage-door opener. “Just keep it in your shirt pocket,” he said.
This fucking guy, John thought. He’d seen guys sniff out bugs in the weirdest places, including his parents’ house. Suddenly a few hundred dollars a month didn’t seem worth it.
“You know we hug a lot?” John said.
“Nobody’s gonna frisk you,” Lewicki said. “You’re Sonny’s son.”
To challenge Sonny’s namesake would be to challenge Sonny, and nobody dared do that. Granted, all the families had rat problems. Henry Hill had flipped on the Luccheses and Sammy “the Bull” Gravano had turned on John Gotti. But the idea that a Franzese would betray his own flesh and blood was unthinkable. A previously unreleased FBI document details each of John’s 85 taped meetings. The first was with a Mob associate:
03/08/2005: CARMINE QUAGLIARIELLO and the Cooperating Witness (CW) met at the Med Cafe, 99 2nd Avenue, New York City. They discussed extorting a health spa in West Hollywood, California and a loan shark operation of one of the owners. QUAGLIARIELLO states…“We want a fucking paycheck every week outta the fucking joint…He owes me over 150 large with vig”… The CW asked QUAGLIARIELLO how far he should go in an effort to get the club under their control. In response, QUAGLIARIELLO states…“The only thing we can do is put him in the hospital for several weeks.”
Two days later, at “a residence” on Long Island, John told Sonny that Quagliariello wasn’t getting the job done. “I would have grabbed [Quagliariello] and told him, ‘Look, you motherfucking rat bastard,’” Sonny replied. “I would have told him to go out there and get the money and bring it here [and] if he don’t give it to you, leave him on the floor.”
The wire transmitted a live feed to Lewicki, who monitored most of John’s sit-downs with his father from a post nearby. He was impressed. Wired John sounded exactly as he normally did. He didn’t flinch, even when his transmitter tumbled out of his pocket and clacked onto the floor during a meeting. John just picked it up, put it back in his pocket, and kept talking. He remained in character for 17 months, while recording some 400 hours of conversations, several of them involving Sonny.
The tapes were filled with boasts (“I’m gonna kill this rat”) and bluster (John: “He paid me in all 20s, I said, ‘Whattaya fuckin’ sellin’, gas?’”). But John also documented multiple rackets and schemes: extorting and robbing clubs, hijacking a marijuana operation, and pummeling anyone who didn’t pay up. His fake steroids ring was flush. He was doing so well that he recorded a Colombo family member named Michael Catapano speaking with Sonny about John officially being “sponsored”—the penultimate step toward getting made.
Things got hairier when John and Catapano met Sonny for a meal at Sal D’s restaurant on Long Island. The Colombos were worried that someone in their ranks was ratting to the feds. A new rule was enacted. “Anybody who vouches for a guy who goes bad,” Catapano said, “that guy goes too.”
“Yeah,” Sonny said.
It was time to testify.
John couldn’t believe it. Upon entering his new life, the feds said, John couldn’t bring more than 40 pounds worth of possessions. His world was reduced to a suitcase and a plane ticket to…somewhere.
Those who enter the Federal Witness Protection Program tend to be criminals testifying against criminals—Henry Hill being among the most famous examples. John had connected with his old acquaintance a few years earlier, while Hill was hiding out in Los Angeles. Hill was so paranoid that he jumped out of John’s car and screamed: “I know you’re here to kill me, Johnny! I know they sent you to kill me!”
John would have to shed everything (his relationships, his identity) and vanish overnight. He wasn’t even allowed to say goodbye to his wife or his mother. The latter called Michael: “Do you know where your brother is? We can’t find him. He’s gone for days.”
According to John, the program, run by the U.S. Marshals Service, administered a psychological evaluation and pressed him about states and cities. Do you know anyone in Iowa? How about Florida? Which city? Any area where the Franzeses knew someone was eliminated.
John’s final destination remained a mystery as a fortified vehicle deposited him in 2006 and Lewicki in the bowels of the Federal Building in L.A., where two U.S. marshals took over. “John, thank you,” Lewicki said, bittersweetly. “I wish you well.”
That’s when John Franzese ceased to exist. According to John, his plane ticket and ID card said that he was Michael Carter, a passenger boarding a plane in Burbank. When he landed at a second airport, a marshal handed him $1,000 and led him to another gate, where John boarded a flight to Cleveland, where another marshal handed him $1,000. The envelope-stuffed-with-cash thing felt oddly familiar.
The byzantine itinerary, which allowed marshals to spot anyone who might be tailing John, ended in Oklahoma City, where a marshal in a cowboy hat spirited him to a hotel room and confiscated his ID and his cell phone. Despite John’s protests—the phone held his family and personal photos—the marshal filled the sink with water and submerged the device. John had no ID, no timeline, no guard. Or, at least, none he could see. “Don’t worry,” the agent said. “Keep your receipts.”
Months passed before the marshals moved John to a hotel in Texas. There he spent hours each day meditating and at last finding a measure of peace.
John’s “permanent” relocation site, Columbia, South Carolina, was a bit too My Cousin Vinny. Within months, though, he had a cat, a tenant, and a new name, John Maggio. (The marshal nixed John’s first choice: DiMaggio.) He was just settling in when an acquaintance he’d put up discovered his diary, freaked out, and told her boyfriend she was living with a mobster hiding from assassins.
By now Sonny and the Colombos were aware that John had flipped.
They didn’t put it all together until 2008, when federal prosecutors charged Sonny and 11 confederates with racketeering, conspiracy, robbery, loan-sharking, drug trafficking, and extortion. Sonny was 89 and battling kidney disease and gout. A conviction seemed tantamount to a death sentence.
That’s why Sonny allegedly asked an associate, Guy Fatato, to help find and kill John. Sonny didn’t realize that Fatato was himself a cooperating witness, wired by the FBI. “I killed a lot of guys,” Sonny told him. “You’re not talking about 4, 5, 6, 10.” He suggested how to avoid leaving fingerprints (wear nail polish) or DNA (use a hairnet). After dismembering a corpse in a kiddie pool, Sonny said, body parts should be dried in a microwave and crushed in a garbage disposal.
Sonny’s trial, in 2010, was tabloid manna. The papers seemed to suggest the real villain here was John, the wayward princeling who had “betrayed” the “last stand-up mafioso.” “Rat’s My Boy,” read a headline in the New York Post.
He’d braced for this moment since 2008, when he’d hurriedly packed another 40 pounds and relocated from South Carolina to Indianapolis. There he acquired another new name, Mat Pazzarelli, and lived in a converted garage. His human interactions were limited to 12-step meetings, diner chitchat, and covert trial-prep sessions with prosecutors.
He wavered. At one point, John snuck a call to Michael: “I feel horrible about what I did.”
“Well,” Michael replied, “maybe you have time to reverse this.”
John never called back.
When John landed in New York it was the first time he’d been in his hometown in nine years—not that he saw much. A team of marshals and cops whisked him into an SUV with fortified doors, then zipped him inside a Kevlar-type contraption that made him impervious to attack and blind to his surroundings—until he alighted into a high-security facility with no windows and vault-like doors. He was locked inside a bedroom, where he spent days smoking, pacing, and eating takeout.
Finally an SUV whisked John to the Brooklyn Federal Court building. He fought off panic attacks as a bailiff guided him into the courtroom and toward the stand. But he made a point of looking straight at everyone. His mother returned his gaze. Sonny, slumped at the defense table, wearing an expression of weary indifference, did not.
John didn’t expect to see Michael there. “The family is taking this very hard,” his older brother told a reporter. Sonny’s lawyer, Richard Lind, portrayed John as a freeloading cokehead who sold out his dad in exchange for money and media opportunities. John was rumored to have earned $500,000 from the FBI. He made $50,000.
Asked to identify his father, John pointed at Sonny: “He’s sitting there in the yellow shirt.” After summarizing his rise and fall among the Colombos, John said: “I’m not talking about my father as a man. I’m talking about the life he chose…. This life absorbs you. You only see one way.”
He explained why he flipped. “I wanted to change my life,” John said. “They would provide a means for me to change my life [and] to make up for what I had done.”
The trial’s most excruciating moment came when Lind homed in on the taped conversation in which Sonny acknowledged the Colombos’ new penalty for those who vouched for rats.
“That someone would get killed, is that right?” Lind asked.
“There was a day when that would happen,” John replied.
“So you realize that it was a possibility for your father, yet you had him vouch for you. Is that right?”
“Yeah. But this is how you stop things like this from ever happening.”
“By having someone killed?”
“No. By doing the right thing and stopping a way of life that does that.”
By the time John stepped down, all the Franzeses were wrecked. Tina reportedly followed Sonny into the bathroom and urged him to plead guilty and give John a break. Michael looked at his parents and thought, Is this what our family has come to? “I don’t care about anything anymore,” Sonny told him. “Nothing matters to me. My own son turned on me.”
John was home in Indianapolis when Sonny was sentenced to eight years in prison. The realization that his dad would likely die behind bars, and that the family blamed John for this, left John in a dark hole. His checks from the FBI had since run out.
He pursued his new life with compulsive precision: rise early, feed the cat, smoke, begin writing. He filled diary after diary with prayers and affirmations colored by Catholicism and recovery-speak; the entries alternated between despair and hopefulness, self-punishment and self-love. “I’m disappearing,” he wrote in 2016. “I walk alone in this loneliness, toward this bright spark, knowing beginnings happen there…TRUST. HOPE. FAITH.”
He attended 12-step meetings twice a day. But to be a rough-hewn New York paesan in Indianapolis was to draw notice. And A.A.’s emphasis on brutal truth was problematic for a guy with a fake identity. So John walked a line, revealing general truths while avoiding specifics.
John followed protocol even when he heard the last thing he wanted to hear at a meeting: “Johnny Boy!” He turned to see two Brooklyn guys he’d known back in the day. Though not mafiosi, they were definitely Mafia-adjacent. But the guys let him know they were 12-step lifers. John chose faith over flight. “My name’s John,” he said. “I’m an alcoholic.”
He found part-time work at a small sober-living home, where he did a little of everything: collecting rent checks, helping new guys settle in. It was the first “square” job he’d ever held. He was at work when he got a call from his local marshal in 2018: “We have to relocate you.”
One of John’s fellow 12-steppers had sussed out John’s identity and revealed his whereabouts in the comments section of an online news article.
He’d spent nearly a decade on the straight and narrow. A life of stealth and fear, he felt, was no life at all. And he wanted to tell his family why he’d done what he’d done. If doing so earned him a bullet, then he’d die as John Franzese.
John exited witness protection quietly at first. When Michael made a public appearance in Indianapolis in 2016, John was too skittish to attend. He clung to his quiet life and still answered to “Mat”—except during a few nervy calls to some of his siblings. “I didn’t do it to hurt the family,” John would say. “I did it to save it.” Eventually, John came to embrace his new reality publicly. The Indianapolis Star profiled his until-then anonymous life and work in recovery in 2019. “The mobster in our midst” read the headline.
The Franzese siblings were receptive, up to a point. Temperatures had cooled, and everyone had come to appreciate the degree to which Sonny’s reign of terror had ravaged the family. Tina had died alone and embittered in 2012. But relations with John remained raw. And there was still the matter of Sonny, who again defied expectations. He was 100, the oldest inmate in the federal prison system, when he made parole.
At which point John turned to his best friend in Indianapolis, Lisa Gilbreath, and said, “I think I might want to see my dad.”
He waffled for two years. That’s how long it takes to decide whether to visit a father who’d put a hit on you, and who had recently told a reporter, “Jesus suffered. He didn’t squeal on nobody.”
“Dude, he’s 102,” Gilbreath told John. “If you’re going to go, we need to go now.”
When John arrived at Sonny’s nursing home, in Queens in, he had a plan. He got there first thing in the morning, when he knew Sonny would be alone and not surrounded by visitors. Walking into a crowd of Sonny’s cronies could be curtains for John—partly because he’d be walking into a lion’s cage and partly because Sonny would feel compelled to save face.
Wandering around the second floor, he spotted a group of patients watching the news. Something about one of them—his Yankees cap, the way he sat in his wheelchair—drew John closer to the man, who looked frail and wan.
“Hey,” John said.
Sonny squinted up at him.
“Hey,” he replied. “How are ya?”
He didn’t recognize his son.
“Do you know who I am?” John asked.
“Yeah, yeah, I know who you are,” Sonny replied. “Let’s go on the side.”
John wheeled him into a private room and asked, “Are you sure you know who this is?”
“It’s coming to me,” Sonny replied. “Do you know Anthony?”
He meant Anthony Flemmo, an old associate.
John nodded. Sonny studied him.
“John,” Sonny said.
“Yeah, Dad. It’s me.”
In a blink, Sonny’s expression darkened.
“Did you give them your real name?” He said. “What are you doing here? They’re gonna kill you.”
Then, just as fast, calm returned.
“You know,” Sonny said, “it wasn’t nice what you did.”
“I know, Dad,” John replied. “I never meant to hurt you.”
“But why’d you do that? What made you do that?”
“I didn’t get paid no half a million,” John said.
“Was it your mother?”
“No, Dad. It wasn’t Mom.”
“She was a good woman. You know she wasn’t well.”
“We all knew she wasn’t well,” John replied. “But you expected her to act like someone that was well.”
Sonny didn’t answer.
“Son,” he said, referring to drugs, “you really stopped doing that shit?”
“It’s been 18 years.”
“I’m proud of you. You’re my son, and I love you. But you’ve always been fuckin’ crazy. You’re always leakin’ oil.”
After three hours, John pointed out the time. Sonny’s friends would be arriving soon. “You gotta go,” Sonny said.
Before they parted, however, Sonny pointed at John’s face. “You need to go to a doctor,” he said. “Get them wrinkles fixed.”
That was the last time John saw his father. But in subsequent phone conversations, Sonny kept urging John to see a plastic surgeon—a campaign John dismissed as delusional until he realized Sonny was again speaking in code. He didn’t want John to get a smoother face. He wanted him to get an unrecognizable one.
Sonny died in February 2020, at age 103. His death galvanized the siblings; it gave them permission to openly acknowledge the insanity of their shared childhoods. That May, Michael’s wife, Cammy, seized the moment and invited a surprise guest to Michael’s lavish 70th birthday party. John was a little freaked when he headed to L.A. But his nerves calmed the instant Michael spotted him and dissolved into tears.
At times, John couldn’t get past how different their worlds had become. While Michael was still living large, John was content in Indiana, where he now manages two sober-living homes. At other times, John was overcome with gratitude and grace. He apologized for all the times he’d vanished, and urged Michael to air any lingering grievances.
Michael shook his head.
“Just stay in our lives now,” he said. “We’re family.”