Sinatra Jr. Kidnapped
November – December 2013
Sinatra Jr. Kidnapped, December 8, 1963.
Looking back at the botched abduction of a Las Vegas crooner 50 years later.
BY JONATHAN SHIPLEY
While lounging around in a T-shirt and a pair of underwear, Frank Sinatra Jr. enjoyed a chicken dinner seemingly without a care in the world. Joined by John Foss, trumpet player for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra—the group Sinatra Jr. was singing for—the two gazed at the heavenly winter scene taking shape outside. It was Sunday, December 8, 1963, the sixth day of a three-week stint at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, where they had a 10p.m. show in the lounge downstairs. Then, someone knocked on the door of their room—417.
“Hi, guys,” a man said. “I’ve got a package for you.”
Sinatra Jr. opened the door and said, “Put it over there.” The man entered the room and brandished a revolver. Then, a second gun-toting man entered Room 417. “Don’t make any noise, and nobody gets hurt,” he warned.
They bound the trumpet player in masking tape. Allowing Sinatra Jr. to get more fully dressed, they blindfolded him, forced him in the back of a Chevy Impala, and headed off to Canoga Park in Los Angeles, where the kidnappers would hole up await- ing the ransom money. And so begins the failed attempt by a desperate man trying to become rich by kidnapping the son of one of America’s most beloved entertainers.
The Culprit’s Context Twenty-three-year-old Barry Keenan grew up in Los Angeles. He went to University High School, the same school that Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland attended. Living amongst the upper crust at his school, he wanted money, and lots of it. His classmates included Nancy Sinatra (eldest child of Frank Sinatra), William Jan Berry, Dean Torrence (of the surf-pop duo Jean and Dean), and other illustrious peers.
As a young man, Keenan quickly gained affluence. While attending UCLA, he began making sound real estate investments. He became the youngest person ever on the Los Angeles Stock Exchange. But eventually life took some hits on Keenan, and he wasn’t bouncing back. He got into a car accident in 1961 that led to a pain-medication addiction and a divorce, followed by the stock market crash of 1962 that brought him to his knees.
The Brains Behind the Abduction Keenan visited with his pal, the aforementioned Torrence, about his get-rich-quick scheme because he would need around $5,000 to get started. Torrence wanted to know what Keenan planned to do with the loan. Keenan told him was planning a celebrity kidnapping; he’d considered nabbing Bing Crosby’s kid, or Bob Hope’s adopted son, but he settled on Frank Sinatra Jr. He’d ask Sinatra Sr. for $100,000, with which he could play the stock market, buy some real estate, make his million, and then repay the ransom money over time. It was a sound business decision. No one would get hurt. Everyone would come out of this OK.
Torrence gave Keenan $500. That’d be enough to get started, Keenan thought. Whatever Torrence thought of Keenan’s plan, he later said he thought Keenan was just bluffing.
An accomplished singer and pianist, Sinatra Jr. made his debut during a 36-week tour with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra (Dorsey died in 1956, but his orchestra lived on) in April 1963 at the Royal Box nightclub. His father was in the audience, glowing. Sinatra Sr. had sung for the same orchestra years ago.
Keenan knew he couldn’t nab Sinatra Jr. alone and that he needed some help. School chum and abalone diver Joe Amsler would help for $100 a week. House painter John Irwin, who once dated Keenan’s mother, would help for $100 as well.
They first hoped to nab Sinatra at the Arizona State Fair in October 1963; however, the plan fell through. Their next failed attempt happened in early November, when they’d hoped to grab him at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Next, they tried on November 22, 1963; however, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, causing Sinatra Jr.’s shows to be canceled.
So, on December 8, 1963, the men drove to snowy Lake Tahoe with no money in their pockets and an ill-conceived plan.
A Plan in Action
Ten minutes after Sinatra was shoved into the back of the Impala, the trumpet player escaped his binds and alerted their road manager, who promptly informed the police and soon had more than 100 cops and dozens of FBI agents swarming in search of Sinatra Jr.
Sinatra Sr., who heard the news while filming “Robin and the 7 Hoods” with Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Bing Crosby, rushed to Nevada and set up headquarters at the Mapes Hotel in downtown Reno.
The kidnappers had no idea how to contact Sinatra Sr. They asked his son for his phone number, and junior refused. Keenan heard on the radio, however, where Sinatra Sr. was staying in Reno. They made a call in.
The kidnappers placed their first call to Sinatra Sr. 23 hours after the abduction. Sinatra offered $1 million, in a press conference, for the safe return of his son, but all the kidnappers wanted was $240,000. On December 11, an FBI agent made a drop of $240,000 in a bag between two school buses at a gas station on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles.
Keenan nabbed the cash (while being filmed by authorities) and went with Amsler to their hideout. Irwin, however, was not there. Nor was Sinatra Jr. Irwin had gotten spooked and drove junior to the Mulholland Drive overpass, where he freed him. Sinatra Jr. walked to nearby Bel Air and asked a security guard for help. He was taken to his mother’s house. Sinatra Sr. was there (as were the press having heard the news that junior was safe).
An Ephemeral Triumph
The kidnappers reveled in their newfound wealth. They spread it out, danced on it, lit cigarettes with it, and threw wads of bills at each other; they were rich! They did this while authorities, such as J. Edgar Hoover, his agents, and law enforcement, closed in.
The victory was short-lived. Irwin bragged soon after to his brother that he was in on the kidnapping. The brother called the police, Irwin was arrested, and he quickly ratted out Keenan and Amsler. They, too, were quickly arrested. Of all the loot, they spent a total of $6,114 of it, most for a furniture set Keenan bought to impress his ex-wife.
The three were in a courtroom two months later. The defense lawyer, Gladys Towles Root, was their representative. She made the audacious claim that the kidnapping was planned by Sinatra Jr. himself as a way to boost his career. Of course, she had no evidence of this, but nevertheless grilled both Sinatras on the bench about their involvement in the kidnapping.
Her argument failed, the three were convicted, and Keenan and Amsler were sentenced to life plus 75 years. Irwin was to be sent to jail for 16 years. However, after some legal wrangling and maneuvers, Amsler and Irwin were released from prison three and a half years later; Keenan four and a half years later.
After prison, Keenan became the millionaire he always wanted to be through sound real-estate investments. Still alive, he’s busy at work on a book about the kidnapping. Amsler had a brief career in show business, and in 2006 died of liver failure. Sinatra Jr. still performs. He’s set for a performance in Palm Desert, California in February 2014.