‘Stealing Sinatra’: The Kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr.

It was while staying at room 417 of Harrah’s Lodge – part of Harrah’s Casino – that the son of a world famous actor, singer and legend, and a good performer in his own right, Frank Sinatra Jr., aged 19, was kidnapped. But it wasn’t the work of professional criminals or mob bosses; the intrinsically planned and enacted crime was courteously of three amateurs, one a young upcoming investor, another an abalone diver and the other a house painter. A strange occurrence considering Sinatra Sr.’s known ties with mob and underground figures and organised crime.

Frank Sinatra Jr. and Frank Sinatra Sr.
Frank Sinatra Jr. and Frank Sinatra Sr.

It was on 9pm on Sunday, December 8, 1963, that the abduction was finally carried out. It was the third of three plans and the only one to be successful. The first was to capture Sinatra Jr. during a performance at Arizona State Fair which collapsed when the group decided they were unprepared. The date was changed to a month later when their target was appearing at the Ambassador Hotel that later failed because of the news of the assassination of President J. F. Kennedy. However, with the third, and last plan, fate didn’t intervene.

The ring-leader Barry Keenan, then aged 23, and friend Joe Amsler, 23, entered the hotel before Sinatra Jr. was due to perform along with ‘The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra’ at 10pm. Innocently and calmly, Keenan entered the room where the singer and a trumpet player John Foss were having dinner and claimed to have a package. Sinatra Jr. invited the man in and gestured for Keenan to place the box on a nearby table. Instantly, Keenan and Amsler – who was hidden outside the hotel room – pulled out pistols and aimed them at the pair. They bound Flosses hands, feet and mouth with tape and took Sinatra Jr. to an awaiting car where he was also bound and blindfolded. He was then taken, in dangerous blizzard conditions, to a hideout in Canoga Park, around eight hours from the kidnapping location. The plan was so simple and seemingly profitable in the right hands; but hardened, career criminals Keenan, Amsler and third member John Irwin, 42, were not and the scheme proved problematic, awkward and ultimately unsuccessful.

Barry Keanan
Barry Keanan

The motive of the kidnapping was purely financial. Keenan, who had been a flourishing investor and member of the Los Angeles Stock Exchange, despite his working class background had suffered a series of misfortunes and, in 1963, was broke.

These events included a car accident which occurred two years before and caused Keenan to become addicted to pain medication, a divorce and the stock market crash of 1962. He along with the unemployed Amsler and underemployed Irwin were desperate and $240,000 random was to be their saviour. The first call to Sinatra Sr. occurred almost a day after the kidnapping where the initial demand was made and the second, the following day, arranged the particulars of the switch. On December 11, at 11pm Keenan and Amsler collected the cash from a petrol station in Carson City, Nevada. But, the plan didn’t go as intended. When the duo returned with the cash, Sinatra Jr. was gone, taken by Irwin – who got nervous and wanted the abduction over – to the Mulholland Drive overpass and released. However Irwin had ruined more than the ransom exchange, on taking his share of the money he visited and boosted of his success to several relatives who promptly turned him in to the FBI. This led to the arrests of the two accomplices and the events of the kidnapping were revealed.

Newsreel featuring the story of the famous kidnapping
Newsreel featuring the story of the famous kidnapping

The court case was more of a media spectacle then the crime and it was all thanks to the outrageous performance of famed defence lawyer, Gladys Towles Root. Heavily made-up and dressed in a number of gaudy, revealing clothes, Root created controversy all on her own, but her central defense that the crime was a mere publicity stunt organized by Sinatra Junior and Senior caused a massive uproar. This accompanied by the revelation that Keenan appeared to be suffering a mental illness involving delusions and hallucinations, created more of a media circus. Ultimately, all their efforts were unsuccessful with Irwin given 16 years and Keenan and Amsler awarded 24 years although the trio never served more than five years of their respected sentences.

The famous kidnapping received new interest fifty years after the event with the release of the film, Stealing Sinatra (2003) documenting the abduction. It starred David Arquette as Barry Keenan, Ryan Browning as Joe Amsler, James Russo as Frank Sinatra Sr. and Thomas Ian Nicholas as Frank Sinatra Jr.

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I'm a film lover and writer whose main interest is classic or pre-1960's Hollywood. At the moment I am obsessed with the Precode era - from 1929 to 1934.

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4 Comments

  1. Taylor Ramsey

    You know I had completely forgotten about this.
    Nice article as always.

  2. I was not alive when this happen so all new to me. Thank you for this fun article! The things people do for money…

  3. AnnaLar

    Hah I am very intrigued! Great article.

  4. All of this is new to me!

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