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When Frank Sinatra Jr Was Kidnapped And Held For Ransom

In 1963, just two weeks after President John F Kennedy was shot, another American icon would find himself in the middle of a tragedy — though one with a slightly happier ending.

On December 8, 1963, 19-year-old Frank Sinatra Jr., son of blue-eyed crooner Frank Sinatra and known affectionately as Junior, was kidnapped.

On paper, the plan was reasonably well thought out.

Three young men, Barry Keenan, Joe Amsler, and John Irwin, former classmates of Junior’s older sister, arranged to kidnap the famous crooner’s son and hold him hostage for ransom. The boys had been following Junior’s budding career, following in his father’s footsteps, and figured that Frank Senior would pay a hefty sum for his talented son’s safe return.

They later admitted that they had considered kidnapping Bob Hope’s son, but decided against it as it “would be un-American.” In the end, Junior seemed like a better bet, as given Frank Senior’s history, it “wouldn’t be morally wrong” to make him suffer for a few hours.

Kidnappers Barry Keenan, Joe Amsler and John Irwin, from left to right.

However, in execution, the plan fell wildly, and thankfully, awry.

With their target identified, Keenan and Joe Amsler began tracking Frank Sinatra Jr., following him to shows in Arizona and Los Angeles with the intention of busting into his dressing room and taking him hostage. Alas, both times, their nerves got too much and they had to abort the plan. Then, Keenan and Amsler were faced with an ultimatum. In ’63, Sinatra Jr. was set to perform in Lake Tahoe, from where he would board a plane to Europe to continue his tour. Knowing that this was their last chance, they drove to the hotel Sinatra Jr. was staying in and asked for his room number at the desk, pretending to be delivery men. Giddy with anticipation, they jogged along the carpeted corridors until they found the room number and turned the handle.

When the door swung open, Keenan and Amsler – pistols loaded – found the singer sinking his ivory-white teeth into a plate of fried chicken. Opposite him sat Bob Foss, a musician in his backing band. A half-nibbled drumstick fell from the trumpeter’s greasy fingers as Amsler held him down and tied him to his chair. Meanwhile, Keenan – with the nozzle of his gun pressed against the singer’s temple – wrapped a band of masking tape around Frank Sinatra Jr.’s mouth to stop him from calling out for help. Leaving Foss in the hotel room, they dragged Sinatra Jr. outside and threw him into the trunk of their car.

The kidnappers requested the ransom be dropped off between these two school busses, at this Texaco petrol station.

While Keenan and Amsler made their way to Los Angeles with Sinatra Jr. in tow, Foss managed to untie himself and immediately called the police. The police, in turn, notified Frank Sinatra. Keenan, aware that Foss would likely make a break for it, made a deal with Sinatra Jr. “I said, ‘Frank, your friend’s going to get up before we get out of Lake Tahoe, and I’m concerned that there’s going to be gunplay,'” Keenan later explained. “‘There’s one way that we can work this out, and that’s if you play along with us, and we pretend that we’re just guys out having a good time.'” Sinatra Jr., not having many other options, ended up submitting, allowing Keenan and Amsler to evade capture despite being pulled over by police.

After driving for 400 miles, Keenan, Amsler and Sinatra Jr. arrived at their LA base, at which point they were met by fellow conspirator John Irwin, who had just called Frank Sinatra and demanded $240,000 in exchange for the release of his son. The FBI, who by this point had liaised with Frank Sinatra and his wife, advised the worried parents to pay the ransom and then allow their agents to track their money and capture the kidnappers. Following this suggestion, Sinatra Sr. gave the money to the FBI, who then photographed it before dropping it off at the agreed location. That’s when things started to unravel for Keenan and Co. While on their way to pick up the money, Irwin, who was little more than a bundle of nerves by this time, decided to release the hostage. After walking around LA in a state of befuddlement for a little while, Sinatra Jr. eventually found a security guard, who agreed to take him to his sister Nancy’s house.

Irwin couldn't keep what he'd done to himself and told his brother what he was involved in. His brother, who called the FBI, who located Keenan and Amsler mere hours later, still in possession of the entire ransom.

All three men were later convicted of kidnapping, despite numerous conspiracy theories that argued their innocence. Some theorists argued that Frank Senior had orchestrated the kidnapping himself as a publicity stunt, while some believed that it had been real, and orchestrated by the mafia, to whom Sinatra had multiple well-known ties.

Irwin blabbed on his co-conspirators. At a widely publicised trial, Keenan and Amsler were sentenced to life in prison, while Irwin was sentenced to 75 years.

But, in reality, the trio served but a fraction of their total sentence. Indeed, as Keenan recalled: “They said in effect that I was legally and mentally insane at the time of the kidnapping, and we had no criminal malice, and didn’t fit the profile of normal criminals.” Subsequently, Amsler and Irwin served only three and a half years, Keenan, four and a half. Following his release, Keenan became an incredibly powerful figure in the world of real estate and, in 1999, was offered $1.5million by Columbia to recount the story of the kidnapping on film. However, Frank Sinatra Jr. filed a lawsuit that led to a court ruling forbidding any of the conspirators to profit financially from their crimes.


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