This Day in History: Frank Sinatra, Jr. Is Freed By His Kidnappers


Mrs. Nancy Sinatra embraces her son, Frank Sinatra, Jr. after being released by kidnappers for $240,000 ransom on December 12, 1963. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

On December 12, 1963, legendary singer Frank Sinatra paid ransom to free his son, Frank, Jr., from a trio of kidnappers. Nineteen-year-old Sinatra, who had been taken from his hotel room in Lake Tahoe, was recovered in Bel Air and reunited with his family, but not before spending a terrifying four days blindfolded and alone.

The Kidnapping Of Frank Sinatra, Jr.

The plot to kidnap the son of one of the world's most famous singers was hatched by Barry Keenan, a 23-year-old man who once attended U.C.L.A. with Frank, Jr.'s sister, Nancy. Keenan's life had spiraled into addiction, poverty, and a sense of hopelessness, and he thought he could make a statement about the inequalities of the world by kidnapping his former classmate's little brother. (Plus, he could have used the ransom money.) With a high school buddy, Joe Amsler, Keenan studied Sinatra's concert schedule and learned that after a Lake Tahoe gig, he was set to fly to Europe, so on December 8, 1963, they drove to his hotel in Lake Tahoe and posed as delivery drivers to gain access to his room.

Sinatra family portrait, 1949, with Frank Jr. at far right. (Movie Life/Wikimedia Commons)

Tracking The Kidnappers

As Keenan held a gun to Sinatra's head, the two men dragged him out a side door, stuffed him in the trunk of their car, and sped back to Los Angeles, where they met with a third conspirator, John Irwin. On December 10, Irwin called Sinatra's father and demanded a ransom of $240,000, although by this time, the FBI was with the Sinatra family and advised them to pay the ransom but use marked bills so they could track the money back to the kidnappers. As per the kidnappers' instructions, the money was placed between two parked school buses at a Texaco station in Sepulveda, California in the pre-dawn hours of December 11, 1963.

Sinatra in 2008. (Phil Konstantin/Wikimedia Commons)

Irwin Breaks

On December 12, Keenan and Amsler left Sinatra with Irwin to retrieve the ransom money, which was a big mistake because Irwin got nervous and let Sinatra go ahead of schedule. Disoriented after several days in captivity, Sinatra simply wandered around the city before happening upon a security guard and asking him to drive him to his sister's house. Since he'd been blindfolded for much of his ordeal, Sinatra couldn't provide great descriptions of his kidnappers, but luckily, a guilt-ridden Irwin soon confessed everything to his brother, who alerted the FBI. Within hours, Irwin, Keenan, and Amsler were in custody and almost all of the ransom money was recovered. All three were found guilty at the end of a highly publicized trial, with Irwin sentenced to 75 years and the others to life, but none of them served even five years. In the end, Keenan got what he wanted, becoming a wealthy and powerful real estate mogul after putting his prison sentence behind him.