Strangers in the night: the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr. | NevadaAppeal.com
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Strangers in the night: the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr.

Chic DiFrancia

One of the busiest news years of the 20th century was 1963. The civil-rights movement was in full swing, and hardly a day passed without a story appearing in a major newspaper about the struggle for equality for black Americans. The big story that year took place on Nov. 22 when President John F. Kennedy was gunned down on the streets of Dallas.

In February, Playboy magazine published an interview with “Ol’ Blue Eyes” himself, Frank Sinatra. When asked if he believed in God, “The Chairman of the Board” candidly replied: “I’m not unmindful of man’s seeming need for faith; I’m for anything that gets you through the night, be it prayer, tranquilizers or a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.” By year’s end, the famed crooner would find comfort in all three.

The night of Sunday, Dec. 8, 1963, was cold in Stateline. A snowstorm had just come through, making some roads impassable. In room 417 at Harrah’s Tahoe sat 19-year-old Frank Sinatra Jr. with John Foss, a 26-year-old trumpet player with the old Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.

Sinatra Jr. had dropped out of college to pursue a singing career and was performing with his father’s band of 20 years earlier. The men were relaxing and having a bite to eat before their next gig when, at 9:30 p.m., came a knock at the door. Sinatra had no sooner said “come in” when two men barged through the door with a gun. Foss was tied up with tape while Sinatra was blindfolded and taken to the back seat of a new Chevy Impala. Thus began one of the strangest criminal cases in Nevada history – Frank Sinatra Jr. was about to meet the Three Stooges.

The intruders were Joseph Amsler and Barry Keenan, both 23. A third partner, 42-year-old John Irwin, had backed out of the plot and was in Los Angeles.

Keenan was the so-called brains behind the kidnapping. The first plan to snatch Sinatra had been put into operation on Nov. 22 when Junior was performing at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. But when the kidnappers heard of the tragedy in Dallas that morning, they opted for a different day.

At age 21, Keenan had become the youngest member on the Los Angeles Stock Exchange. He eventually got into real estate and did quite well until drugs and bad investments took their toll.

In October, Keenan was in dire need of money. He called on his old school pal Dean Torrence of Jan & Dean fame. Torrence was flush at the time, for in July he and singing partner Jan Berry had their first No. 1 hit with “Surf City.” Keenan laid a story on Torrence how he was going to kidnap Sinatra Jr., invest the ransom money to make a quick buck then return the money to Sinatra Sr. Torrence didn’t believe Keenan’s story, but gave him $500 anyway, mostly just to get rid of him. This financed the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr.

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Meanwhile back in room 417, Foss managed to free himself in a few minutes and notified law enforcement authorities. Roadblocks were set up on the major highways, but by a quirk of fate, the kidnappers slipped through. Possibly because authorities were looking for three men, but the Impala contained only two, for Amsler was in the trunk freezing his patootie off.

On Monday, the Impala pulled into Los Angeles. Now it was time to get down to business and call Sinatra Sr. for the ransom.

Keenan: “Joe, where’s the phone number?”

Amsler: ” I don’t have no number, Barry, I thought you had it.”

Keenan: “No, I ain’t got it!”

The men then asked Junior for his father’s number. By this time, Sinatra Jr. had a bellyfull and told them to go to hell.

Keenan called Irwin, who was stunned to learn Keenan and Amsler had actually pulled it off. Irwin, a burly decorated vet, was asked to come over and intimidate Junior into giving them the number.

Sinatra was unimpressed when Irwin entered the room.

“Shoot me, beat me up, whatever – I’m not giving you a phone number. I’m not scared of you guys.”

Now what? A cargo worth $240,000 and no phone number to deliver the goods.

The trio was pondering its next move when the radio said Frank Sinatra Sr. had flown into Reno and was staying in suite No. 614 of the Mapes Hotel. He was ready to negotiate the release of his son. The kidnappers, fearful of a wire tap, decided to use pay phones at local gas stations.

Trouble was, the numbers in the directory contained those of Reno and Carson City. At 1 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 10, Bert Borda, who was working at Oxoby’s Chevron Station in Carson City, received a phone call. The caller asked: “Is Frank there?

“Frank who?” Borda asked.

“Frank Sinatra” said the caller.

At the same time, Dan McStay, who was working the Standard Station across from the Capitol, received several calls, all asking for Frank Sinatra. When the FBI realized the kidnappers had used Carson City numbers instead of Reno, they hustled Sinatra to the capital city in record time.

Sinatra took calls from both stations and began negotiations.

“How much?” Sinatra asked, “I’ll give you a million dollars if you let my son go!”

“We don’t need a million dollars,” Irwin said, “I’ll call and let you know how much we need tomorrow.”

Sinatra was told to put $240,000 in a black satchel and leave it between two parked school buses on Sunset Boulevard. The pickup went without incident.

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But a bad case of nerves, no sleep and a cocktail of drugs and booze was about to bring an end to Frank Sinatra Jr.’s kidnapping fiasco. Paranoid that the FBI was about to close in on them, the trio disintegrated like snowballs in July.

On Wednesday night Dec. 11, Irwin dropped Sinatra Jr. off on the 405 freeway. Junior hid in the bushes until the coast was clear and then walked to his mother’s house in Bel-Air. He was spotted by a security guard, who drove him the rest of the way.

The ordeal had lasted less than 60 hours. When Sinatra Sr. was notified of his son’s safe return, he was beside himself with joy.

“Tomorrow is my (48th) birthday, and this will be the best birthday I ever had,” he said.

In the meantime, Irwin went to his brother’s house and unloaded the whole truth about the dastardly deed.

The brother wasted little time in notifying authorities. By Saturday, Dec. 14, the three men were in custody. All but $24,000 of the ransom was recovered.