A couple of days after JFK’s November 1963 assassination, Barry Keenan led Frank Sinatra’s son, 19-year-old Frank Sinatra Jr., out of his hotel room in Lake Tahoe at gunpoint. He drove him to a house in Los Angeles, where he locked him away for four days while demanding $240,000 in ransom from his superstar father. Keenan and his co-conspirators got their money, but were caught and arrested soon after Junior was released, and later convicted in a widely covered court case. A new podcast produced and narrated by John Stamos called The Grand Scheme: Snatching Sinatra retells the kidnapping from the perspective of Keenan, the mastermind behind the now infamous scheme.
Keenan was 23 years old at the time of his plot. He was a UCLA student and a grade school classmate of Nancy Sinatra, Frank Jr.’s sister. After a car accident earlier that year caused a back injury and left him in chronic pain, Keenan became addicted to Percodan, muscle relaxers, and tranquilizers. His addiction bankrupted him, and so he concocted a plan to kidnap Frank Jr. for ransom—which he would invest, he said, and later, when he was back on his feet, pay back.
“I decided upon Junior because Frank Sr. was tough, and I had friends whose parents were in show business, and I knew Frank always got his way,” Keenan told the New Times Los Angeles in 1998. “It wouldn’t be morally wrong to put him through a few hours of grief worrying about his son.”
So Keenan recruited his high school friend Joe Amsler and his mother’s former boyfriend John Irwin and together they planned the deed. After aborted attempts in both Arizona and Los Angeles, Keenan learned that Frank Jr. was heading to Lake Tahoe, Nevada, to perform a concert, and would set off for Europe after. Aware that it would be their last chance, Keenan and Amsler made the trip.
On Sunday, December 8, 1963 at nine, Keenan and Amsler entered Frank Jr.’s hotel room, pretending to be delivering a package. The young singer was eating chicken with John Foss, the trumpet player in his band, when Keenan pulled out a gun and demanded money from the duo. He and Amsler tied the band-member up, whose presence they had not planned for, and walked Frank Jr. out to their car. As soon as Foss got himself untied, he called the police.
The authorities were already on the lookout as Keenan and Amsler made their way to Los Angeles with Junior in the car. “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 explained later to the New Times Los Angeles. “‘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.'”
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Junior complied and, at one point on the drive, Keenan talked his way out of a police roadblock with ease. 400 miles later, they arrived safely at their Los Angeles hideout, where Keenan called Irwin. Irwin, who had initially been involved in planning but hadn’t joined them in Tahoe, came to the outpost, and it was he who placed the phone call to Frank Sinatra Sr. on December 10, demanding $240,000 for the safe release of his son. On the morning of December 11, the FBI dropped the money off at the location Irwin specified.
When Keenan and Amsler went to pick up the money, Irwin got nervous and released their hostage. The 19-year-old walked for a while, ending up in Bel Air, where he found a security guard to drive him to the home of his mother, Nancy Sinatra. The money had been collected, Junior was home, and all seemed quiet. For a few days, the kidnappers appeared to have gotten away with the crime.
But on his way to hide out in New Orleans, Irwin stopped in San Diego to visit his brother, who, after Irwin divulged his recent doings, proceeded to call the authorities. The FBI captured all three men that day, and nearly all of the ransom money was recovered.
Their trial began on February 10, 1964. Keenan testified that the crime was a hoax, a publicity stunt coordinated with people tied to the family. That story would go on to surround the case for years to come, long after it was proven false. Even today, many believe that Junior had a hand in his own kidnapping.
Keenan and Amsler were both sentenced to life in prison plus 75 years—the maximum sentence, which then qualified them for psychiatric observation, too—while Irwin was sentenced to 75 years. “They said in effect that I was legally and mentally insane at the time of the kidnapping,” Keenan said in 1998, “and we had no criminal malice, and didn’t fit the profile of normal criminals.” That reduced the life in prison terms to sentences of 25 years. In the end, Amsler and Irwin both ended up serving three and a half years while Keenan served four and a half.
Keenan was released from prison in 1968. He dove into the real estate world, and by 1983, his net worth was estimated at $17 million. In 1998, he told his story to the New Times Los Angeles, and the year following its publication, in 1999, Columbia Pictures offered him and his co-conspirators $1.5 million in exchange for recounting it again for a film. Frank Jr. promptly filed a lawsuit to block the deal upon the basis of a California statute that forbids felons from profiting financially from the stories of their crimes. Keenan, then in his late fifties, argued that the law violated his First Amendment rights. After a long legal battle and several appeals, Frank Jr. won the case.
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In 2002, Keenan spoke to Ira Glass about the kidnapping on This American Life, and in 2003, David Arquette and William Macy starred in a Showtime movie called Stealing Sinatra based on the affair. A biopic about the kidnapping directed by Joe Mantegna called Operation Blue Eyes is currently in the works, as well.
Frank Jr. passed away in 2016 at the age of 72; Keenan is 81 years old today. The Grand Scheme: Snatching Sinatra comes out on July 27, and features exclusive excerpts from Keenan himself.
“He’s a bright man,” Stamos told IndieWire of Keenan, “and he just wanted to take a shortcut to everything.”
Lauren Kranc is an editorial assistant at Esquire, where she covers pop culture and television, with entirely too narrow of an expertise on Netflix dating shows.
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