STATELINE, NV — At 9 P.M. on December 8, 1963, Barry Keenan and Joe Amsler— a pair of 23-year-old Los Angeles schemers aiming to get rich quick — forced their way inside the hotel room in the Lake Tahoe Harrah’s Club that was occupied by Frank Sinatra Jr.
Sinatra Jr., then a 19-year-old up-and-coming crooner, was relaxing with a friend between shows at the casino’s theater.
After pretending to be delivery men, the thugs drew guns, blindfolded Frank Jr., tied up his pal, and forced the son of the most famous singer in the world out through a side door, into a waiting vehicle.
The other guy in Frank Jr.’s room quickly freed himself and notified the authorities. Police flew into action and even managed to stop the kidnappers at a roadblock, but Keenan and Amsler talked their way past the officers and sped off to a safe house in the Canoga Park area of Los Angeles.
In the meantime, FBI agents reached out to Frank Sinatra Sr., then doing a gig in Reno, and Barbara Sinatra, who was at home in Beverly Hills. The feds predicted (correctly) that a ransom demand would be forthcoming. They advised Ol’ Blue Eyes to pay up, and then let the agency follow the money to locate the perpetrators.
The following night, Keenan and Amsler’s buddy John Irwin called Sinatra Sr. and instructed him to drop off $240,000 ransom ($1.8 million today) between two school busses parked in the Sepulveda district. The deadline was 48 hours.
After receiving support calls from his friends Attorney General Robert Kennedy and organized crime kingpin Sam Giancana, the senior Sinatra gathered the money, which an FBI bagman delivered on schedule. Once the kidnappers had the cash in hand, John Irwin reportedly panicked and cut Frank Jr. loose.
The freed teenager walked from Sepulveda to Bel Air, where he let a security guard know what was happening. The guard offered Frank Jr. a lift to Barbara’s house, suggesting the young Sinatra avoid the press by riding in the trunk. He did.
For all their audacity, Keenan, Amsler, and Irwin proved to be an almost comically incompetent criminal squad. They left behind enough clues for the FBI to quickly track their route from Lake Tahoe to their Canoga Park hideout.
Irwin, typically acting nervous, told his brother what they’d done. Smelling a reward, Irwin’s brother immediately telephoned an FBI office in San Diego and ratted on the trio. By December 14, agents had rounded up and arrested all three conspirators.
The ensuing 1964 trial lasted three weeks. Despite absolutely no evidence — and the FBI insisting it wasn’t true — wildly flamboyant defense attorney Gladys Root argued that Frank Sinatra Jr. orchestrated the entire debacle as a publicity stunt to promote his floundering career.
The ploy didn’t work, as the kidnappers each got life plus 75 years, but rumors that he faked his own abduction haunted Junior Sinatra for the rest of his life.
Oddly, the kidnappers only served minimal time. Keenan, the mastermind, did the longest stretch at four and a half years. Upon getting released, Keenan chalked up the harebrained plan to his being addicted to drugs at the time and living among a number of celebrity offspring. In 1998, he explained a reporter how he came to target the Sinatra in particular, stating:
“I decided upon Junior because Frank Sr. was tough, and I had friends whose parents were in show business, and I knew Frank always got his way. It wouldn’t be morally wrong to put him through a few hours of grief worrying about his son.”
Since then, Keenan has become a Texas real estate mogul. Amsler and Irwin died back in the 1990s. Frank Sinatra Sr. passed on in 1998.
Over the ensuing decades, Frank Sinatra Jr. never seemed to fully get over the ordeal. No matter how many times the authorities and the perps alike publicly explained that Junior was an innocent victim, he remained forever haunted by rumors that he faked the kidnapping.
He also acknowledged never being able to outpace his father’s long shadow, saying in 2006:
“I was never a success. Never had a hit movie or hit TV show or hit record. I just had visions of doing the best quality of music … The only satisfaction is that I do what I do well. That’s the only lawful satisfaction.”
Frank Sinatra Jr. died in 2016. He was 72.
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Main photo: Frank Sinatra Jr. in 1963/YouTube video [screenshot]