Monday, April 15, 2013

How Barry Keenan Kidnapped Frank Sinatra, Jr.

Almost fifty years ago, on December 8, 1963, 19-year-old Frank Sinatra, Jr. was kidnapped at Harrah's casino resort at Lake Tahoe, along the border of California and Nevada.  His ordeal lasted until December 11th, when his famous father arranged to pay a ransom that was reported to be $240,000 U.S. It was the most sensational kidnapping case in the United States since the abduction and murder of aviator Charles Lindbergh's baby son in 1932.

Franklin Wayne Sinatra, known as Frank Sinatra, Jr. or Frankie, was born on January 10, 1944 in Jersey City, New Jersey.  He is the only son of the legendary singer Frank Sinatra (Francis Albert) and his first wife, Nancy Barbato Sinatra.  Named after Franklin D. Roosevelt who was President of the United States at the time of his birth, Frank, Jr. has an older sister, singer/actress Nancy Sinatra (born June 8, 1940), and a younger sister, television producer Tina Sinatra (born June 20, 1948)

By 1948, Frank Sr. had ended his association with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and was determined to become a respected film actor.  In  order  for him to actively pursue a Hollywood career, the Sinatra family moved from  their New Jersey abode to Los Angeles.  After the move to L.A., Frank began a tempestuous affair with movie actress Ava Gardner.  The family was torn apart when he left Nancy for the sultry starlet.  After much scandal, Sinatra and the 29-year-old Ava wed on November 7, 1951, just ten days after his divorce had become final.  Frank Jr, was only seven years old at the time of his father's remarriage.

The three Sinatra children remained with their mother in their Bel Air mansion and only saw their father sporadically.  As Frank Jr. confided to the Washington Post in 2006, "He was unreachable.  He was travelling,or off making some movie . . it was only on rare occasions when we saw each other."  In 2012, he  told Nick Duerden of the British newspaper The Guardian that Frank Sr. was a good father as much as it was within his power."

In 1963, Frank Sinatra, Jr. was a music major at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).  Although a talented pianist with a fine singing voice, he found himself living in the shadow of his legendary dad.  It was difficult to escape the comparisons.  He bore the Sinatra name and his resemblance to his father was unmistakable.  In addition, he had chosen to be a crooner, not a rock and roll singer.

When offered a job as a vocalist with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, the young Sinatra jumped at the chance.  He saw it as a golden opportunity to emerge  from his father's shadow and achieve something on his own.  Thus,  he dropped out of UCLA to embark on a 36-week nostalgia tour with the revamped Dorsey's band (Tommy Dorsey himself had died in 1956).  The band was scheduled to perform at various hotels and resorts around the world.

Frank Sinatra, Jr.

The kidnapping of young Sinatra was planned perpetrated by three rather inept and inexperienced criminals - Barry Keenan and Joseph Clyde Amsler, a pair of 23-year-old former high school classmates, and John Irwin, a 42-year-old house painter.  Keenan and Joe Amsler, an aspiring boxer, had grown up in Los Angeles together and had attended University High School (The school's alumni includes an impressive who's who of celebrities - Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Jeff Bridges and Elizabeth Taylor for example).  Keenan, a UCLA dropout, was clearly the mastermind of the operation.  He recruited Irwin, his mother's former boyfriend, as a third partner.

Barry Keenan is the son of alcoholic parents who divorced when he was a toddler.  His father, John Keenan, was a stockbroker and Barry was also keenly interested in the world of finance.  In fact, he was a financial whiz kid.  In 1959, at the age of 21, Barry became the youngest member of the Los Angeles Stock Exchange and was able to accumulate a significant fortune.  A streak of bad luck, however, exhausted his financial resources.  After a short-lived marriage, he went through a bitter and costly divorce.  An injury from a 1961 car accident left him with chronic back pain and an addiction to Percodan, a prescription painkiller.

Keenan's finances took another hit when the New York stock market crashed on May 28, 1962.  It was dubbed "the Flash Crash" and the Dow Jones Industrial Index fell 7.5 per cent that day. Unemployed and desperate for cash, Barry devised a scheme to obtain some ransom money form a big name celebrity.  The celebrity he chose was Frank Sinatra, one of the most famous entertainers in the world and a friend of then-President John F. Kennedy.

Young Barry Keenan

Barry Keenan now

The kidnappers had originally intended to capture Sinatra Jr, while he was performing at Arizona State Fair.  The fist plan was never carried out because the group felt too unprepared to go through with it.  They then decided to abduct Frank Jr. while the Dorsey Orchestra were booked at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on November 22, 1963.  Their second plan fell awry, however, due to the shocking assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on that fateful day.  The Dorsey band's show at the Ambassador was cancelled and there was heightened security across America. Ironically, JFK's brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated at that same Ambassador Hotel during his 1968 campaign for the presidency.

After their scheme to kidnap Sinatra Jr. in Los Angeles had been thwarted, the amateur abductors set their sights on a new time and place.  Harrahs casino resort in Lake Tahoe.became their next target.  It was their last opportunity to kidnap the singer before he and the  band headed for Europe.  The plan was put into motion on the evening of December 8, 1963 as Frank Jr. supped on a room service meal in his hotel room.  The singer's dinner companion was John Foss, 26, a trumpet player in the Dorsey band.. The two musicians were relaxing prior to their scheduled 10 p.m. performance.

Suddenly, there was a knock on the door of Room 417.  It was Barry Keenan, claiming to have package.  He was invited into the hotel room and Sinatra Jr. instructed him to place the box on a nearby table. Amsler, who had been hiding outside the hotel room, quickly entered.  Dressed in parkas (there was a blizzard outside), the two men abducted Sinatra Jr. at gunpoint and blindfolded him.  The singer was then forced into a rented white Chevrolet Impala and driven to Canoga Park, an area of Southern California's San Fernando Valley.  As for John Foss, the trumpeter was bound and gagged and left in the hotel room.  He escaped from his bindings and called the police.

At the time of his son's kidnapping, Frank Sr. was filming Robin and the 7 Hoods with his "Rat Pack" buddies, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr.  He was, however, at home in Palm Springs when informed of his son's abduction.  Stunned by the news, Sinatra immediately called a press conference and offered one million dollars for the safe return of his son.  The abductors actually demanded $240,000 and they insisted that Frank Sr. communicate with them via payphone.  During the abduction, Sinatra stationed himself at the Mapes Hotel in Reno, Nevada.  He also contacted Attorney General Robert Kennedy and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

On the morning of December 11th,  Keena and Amseler set out to retrieve the ransom money which was dropped off by an FBI agent.  During their absence, John Irwin was left in charge of Frank Jr.  Irwin panicked and released his  hostage unharmed on the Mulholland Drive overpass of Interstate 405 in Los Angeles.  Sinatra Jr. kept walking until he was able to flag down a police officer.  He  was driven to his mother's Bel Air home where he was greeted by his relieved family and a large contingent of reporters.

The FBI quickly apprehended the three kidnappers.and they were brought to trial just three weeks after the abduction.  Keenan, Amsler and Irwin were represented by renowned Los Angeles defence attorney,  Gladys Towles Root.  Although the flamboyant Root dressed in outrageously large hats, tight garments and furs, she was one of the most skilled female criminal defence attorneys of the 20th century.  She specialized in sexual assault and murder cases and was known for her razor-sharp cross-examinations.  At the trial, the defence portrayed Sinatra Jr. as a co-conspirator in his own abduction and tried to create the impression that he had willingly participated in a hoax to further his career.  Root asked rhetorically, "Was this the publicity he had been looking for to make ladies swoon over him like poppa?"

Gladys Root

The three defendants were convicted and received lengthy prison sentences for the kidnapping - although they were only incarcerated for a small portion of the time.  Barry Keenan and Joe Amsler were sentenced to life plus 75 years imprisonment while John Irwin received 16 years.  Amsler and Irvin were released in 1967 after serving three years.  Keenan was released in 1968 after just under five years at the maximum security prison at Lompoc, California.  Barry Keenan was deemed to be legally insane because he suffered from a mental illness and heard voices.  He apparently believed that his kidnapping plan had received God's blessing and that it was not immoral because he intended to eventually return the ransom money.  In 1998, Barry told People magazine that he had thought he would "borrow" Frank Jr., invest the ransom money and pay back Frank Sr. with interest.  He claimed that in his "demented state," he viewed the abduction as a "business deal."

The kidnapping story made headlines worldwide and the Sinatras had to deal with rumours that Frank Sr. had staged his own son's abduction as a publicity stunt in order to jump start Junior's fledgling career.  The rumours proved false but the innuendo was hard to take and hurt deeply.  "The criminals invented a story that the whole thing was phony, Sinatra Jr. told the Guardian last year.  "That was the stigma put on me," he added.  So, although Frankie was not harmed physically, he was hurt psychologically.  He was subjected to constant ridicule on late-night talk shows and was made to feel as if he were the one being accused of a crime.

Frank Jr. performing

Despite the terrifying kidnapping ordeal, Frank Jr. and his father remained distant.  They did not really bond until 1988, when 44-year-old Frank Jr. was performing in Atlantic City.  Frank Sr. phoned him and unexpectedly asked him to conduct his band for him.  The surprised younger Sinatra, accepted the job.  He joined the elder Sinatra's staff as musical director and concert conductor and spent the last seven years of his father's career touring with him.

After suffering a heat attack in February 1997, Frank Sinatra, Sr. discontinued his public appearances. He died of a second heart attack at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in West Hollywood, California on May 14, 1998.  Ol' Blue Eyes was 82 years old at the time of his passing. About two months after his death, his son's kidnappers finally admitted that Frank Jr. had nothing to do with the kidnapping and that they were sorry for their actions.  They reportedly attempted to sell the movie rights to the kidnapping saga to Columbia Pictures for more than a million dollars  Meanwhile, Frank Jr.'s attorneys filed suit against Barry Keenan, Joseph Amsler, John Irwin and Columbia Pictures in a Los Angeles Superior Court to prevent the kidnappers from receiving any financial game from the sale of the movie rights.

Frank Sinatra, Jr. remained a bachelor until the age of 54.  On October 18, 1998, just months after his father's death, he married Cynthia McMurry.  The union was short-lived and the couple divorced in January of 2000.without having any children. Frank Jr. does have a son, Michael Francis Sinatra (born March 1, 1987), from an previous relationship. Michael is a 26-year old college professor who resides in Japan.  His mother is  Patricia Ward Fisher, a former employee of the Sinatra family.  Although Sinatra, Jr. is rumoured to have fathered three other children, Michael is the only one he has publicly acknowledged as his child.

Frank Jr. is now 69 years old.  He continues to perform with his band in a show called "Sinatra Sings Sinatra."

Frank Jr. in 2008


* Are you wondering whatever happened to Barry Kernan, the young man who dreamed up the idea of abducting Frank Sinatra, Jr.?  Keenan, born in 1940, is still living.  He is 72 or 73 years old.  After his release, he became a wealthy real estate developer.  His book about the abduction of Frank Sinatra, Jr. is due to be published this year.  All proceeds are to be donated to charity.

* What happened to the $240,00 in ransom money?  J. Edgar Hoover stated that $168,927 of the ransom money was recovered at Joe Amsler's apartment.

* Joe Amsler, Keenan's accomplice in the Sinatra kidnapping scheme, died on May 6, 2006 in Roanoke, Virginia due to complications from liver disease,  Amsler was 65 years old at the time of his death.

Joe Amsler

* The story of the kidnapping was made into a 2003 television movie on Showtime.  It is titled Stealing Sinatra and stars David Arquette and Willam  H. Macy.  The film was nominated for a Primetime Emmy.

* One of Barry Keenan's closest friends was Dean Torrence of the pop duo Jan and Dean. Needing cash to fund his kidnapping scheme, Keenan approached Torrence, then riding high with the hit single "Surf City,"  He revealed his plan to his friend and requested money.  Torrence gave Barry $500 and dismissed his story as a fantasy.  When Keenan was released from prison in 1968, Torrence held a fundraiser for him.  The two later became partners in a chain of burger restaurants.

* In 1980, Keenan married Sasha White whom he had met in the late 1970s while developing White Bluff Ranch, a resort community in Lake Whitney, Texas.  Sasha and her parents, developers Bob and Marce White, were instrumental in helping Barry fight his addiction to alcohol and painkillers.  The marriage, however, ended in divorce after only three years.  In 1998, Sasha told People magazine that she did not know that Keenan abducted Frank Sinatra, Jr.  "I just thought he was this handsome, charismatic go-getter," she stated.

- Joanne

Editor's Update (March 17, 2016):  Frank Sinatra, Jr. passed away yesterday, March 16, 2016.  In a statement to the Associated Press, his family announced that the singer had died suddenly of cardiac arrest while on tour in Daytona Beach, Florida.  He was 72 years old.