The bizarre kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr.
The recent death of Frank Sinatra Jr., the son of famous singer-entertainer Frank Sinatra Sr., will rekindle the memories of those who will recall the bizarre, headline-grabbing kidnapping of Frank Jr. in Northern Nevada 53 years ago.
Frank Jr., who was 72 when he died unexpectedly of a heart attack March 16 while on tour in Daytona Beach, Fla., left a successful legacy of his own as a singer, arranger and songwriter.
The middle child of Frank Sr. and Nancy Barbato Sinatra, he was 19 when three men kidnapped him at gunpoint from his room at Harrah’s Hotel and Casino at South Lake Tahoe on Dec. 8, 1963.
It was approximately 9 p.m. when young Sinatra, who had just begun his career in music and was preparing to perform in Harrah’s showroom, responded to a knock on the door by a man claiming he had a package to deliver.
Opening the door, Frank Jr. and a friend who had joined him for a chicken dinner, were seized by the three kidnappers and bound and gagged with duct tape. Blindfolded, Frank Jr. was hustled out a hotel side door and tossed into the trunk of a rented Chevrolet Impala which roared off and headed to Southern California. His friend, who had been left behind in the hotel room, freed himself, alerted the authorities, and Douglas County
sheriff’s deputies and Nevada Highway Patrol officers immediately set up roadblocks on roads leading from Harrah’s.
The kidnappers’ Impala was stopped by officers, but the kidnappers bluffed their way through and sped, with young Frank still in the trunk, to Canoga Park in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley where they took him to a rented house and tied him to a chair in the living room.
Frank Sr., when informed of his son’s abduction, flew by private plane to Reno where he rented a suite at the Mapes Hotel and was monitored around the clock by FBI agents from Reno and Carson City.
Frank Sr., at the time of the kidnapping, was on location in Los Angeles playing a mobster in the motion picture “Robin and the Seven Hoods,” a parody of the Robin Hood legend that was set in 1920s mob-ridden Chicago, that also starred Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin and Bing Crosby. This was a particularly sad time for Frank Sr., as he was mourning the death of his long-time friend, President John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated in Dallas two weeks earlier by Lee Harvey Oswald.
The FBI agents surrounding Frank Sr. believed the kidnappers would demand a ransom for young Sinatra’s release, and they were correct, for the next day the kidnappers’ leader, Barry Keenan, telephoned Frank Sr. at the Mapes Hotel and demanded $240,000 for the safe return of his son.
Keenan, 23, who had attended high school with Frank Sr.’s daughter, Nancy, also instructed Frank Sr. to drive to the Chevron station on Carson St. in Carson City and wait in the telephone booth there for information as to where the ransom must be delivered.
Frank Sr. drove to Carson City, and just as he reached the phone booth at the gas station the telephone rang, with Keenan at the other end speaking from Canoga Park where young Frank was still being held.
Frank Sr. told Keenan that “I’ll give you $1 million for my son’s release,” but Keenan, for some strange reason, said, “Well, we don’t need $1 million… we’re asking for $240,000.” He also put young Sinatra on the line, who told his father, “I’m OK, dad.”
Keenan then told Frank Sr. to place the cash in a suitcase and have it dropped off the following day between two school buses parked at a Texaco station in Sepulveda, a community near Canoga Park. This was accomplished by an FBI agent, who flew from Reno to Los Angeles, and was driven to the drop site by a Los Angeles FBI agent where he deposited the suitcase.
However, as Keenan and another of the kidnappers, Joe Amsler, were about to pick up the suitcase between the two buses, the third conspirator, John Irwin, got cold feet and decided to free Frank Jr. by driving him to Mulholland Drive in the hills north of Los Angeles where he set him free.
Alone on the winding road, Frank Jr. hiked several miles until he was able to flag down a car that was driven by a private security guard, who took him to his mother’s home in Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, the FBI was able to locate the house where Frank Jr. had been held, and it wasn’t long before the hapless Keenan and Amsler were discovered, arrested and taken to the County Jail in downtown Los Angeles. Most of the ransom money was found in the possession of the two men.
During a four-week trial, Keenan admitted he had masterminded the kidnapping and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He was freed after serving less than five years and went on to become a wealthy real estate developer and investor in California and Texas. The other men, Irwin and Amsler, also were found guilty and received lesser sentences.
The abduction of Frank Jr., one of the most notorious and sensational kidnappings in U.S. history, also became a rallying point for conspiracy theorists who said that young Sinatra had rigged his own kidnapping in order to gain publicity for his singing career, even though the kidnappers admitted they had abducted him after initially considering kidnapping the sons of Bing Crosby or Bob Hope before setting upon Frank Jr.
As for “Old Blue Eyes” Frank Sinatra Sr., he died in 1998 at the age of 83 following a heart attack at his Los Angeles home. He was buried at Desert Memorial Park in Palm Springs, where he had long maintained a massive family compound serviced by a staff of 26.
If he were alive today, he would be 101 years old.
David C. Henley is LVN’s Publisher Emeritus.