Frank Sinatra Junior Kidnapping Story

By: David Woodruff

There have been many bizarre stories of true crime in the annals of human transgressions. In 1963, one of the more unusual acts of criminality originated near the shores of enchanted Lake Tahoe.

In November of 1963, two 23-year-old former high school classmates, Barry Keenan and Joe Ambler (soon joined by a third conspirator-John Irwin), followed 19-year-old Frank Sinatra Jr. as he made his way from city to city on a concert tour. Sinatra Jr. was promoted by his legendary father as the next singing sensation. Keenan and Amsler had hatched a plan, to kidnap “Old Blue Eyes” son, and hold him for a sizeable ransom from his wealthy father.

Photo: University of Nevada Reno

On December 8, 1963, Sinatra Jr. was at Stateline’s Harrah’s Club, having been booked to perform in their showroom with the Tommy Dorsey Band. Around 9 PM, while relaxing with friend John Foss in his motel room next door, Keenan and Amsler knocked on Junior’s door pretending to be delivering a package. They bound and blindfolded the friend and hustled Junior out to the trunk of their car.

Within minutes, Foss was able to free himself and notify casino security, and law enforcement officers quickly set up roadblocks. The kidnappers were even stopped in one but deluded the officers as they headed to their Southern California hideout.  

Frank Sinatra Jr Reno Gazette Journal Newspaper
Photo: Reno Gazette Newspaper

By 9:40 PM, the FBI had joined the search and soon met with Sinatra Sr. who had flown to Reno after hearing of the kidnapping. The G-Men thought the kidnappers would demand a ransom from Sinatra Sr. Plans were laid out for the money to be paid and the FBI would track the money and find the kidnappers. On the morning of December 9, the kidnappers reached Sinatra Sr. by phone and instructed him to go to Ron’s Filling Station in Carson City for further instructions. The kidnappers demanded that all further communication be conducted by payphone. During these conversations, Frank Sr. became concerned that he would not have enough coins for the calls, which prompted him to carry 10 dimes with him at all times for the rest of his life. He was even buried with 10 dimes in his pocket! The kidnappers told Sr. to get to Southern California and await further instructions.

On December 10, with Sinatra Jr. being held in Canoga Park, kidnapper Irwin called Sinatra Sr. again, demanding $240,000 in ransom, with instructions to drop it off at a Wilshire Blvd filling station between two parked school buses.

Photo: Free Progress Citizen Newspaper

The drop was made during the early morning hours of December 11. Irwin stood guard over Junior while Keenan and Amsler picked up the money. But Irwin had gotten nervous and set Sinatra Jr. free. An unharmed Junior was walking through an exclusive Bel-Air neighborhood when found at about 3 AM by a private security guard.

The pressure was too much, and Irwin broke down. He spilled the beans to his brother, who immediately called the police. All three kidnappers were soon arrested, and all the money was recovered just a few hours after Junior was released.

The kidnapper’s defense attorney concocted a story that Sinatra Jr. had arranged the kidnapping himself as a publicity stunt to help boost his career. A jury wasn’t buying it and the trio was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, though all three ended up serving less than five years.

Frank Sinatra Junior’s career never did make it to the level of his acclaimed father. Over his life’s work, he sang, acted a little, and even worked as his father’s musical director towards the end of Senior’s career. Frank Sinatra Jr. passed away in March of 2016. 

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