Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Frank Sinatra, Jr. Kidnapping

The Snatch

Barry Keenan
Barry Keenan

Barry Keenan eased the Chevy Impala to a stop outside Harrah's casino, just across the Nevada state line from Lake Tahoe, California.

Squinting through a snow squall, he poked his pal Joe Amsler in the ribs and pointed to the illuminated marquee: "The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, Featuring Frank Sinatra, Jr."

A short time later, the two men found themselves standing outside Room 417 at Harrah's Lodge. Keenan held a wine box — a prop filled not with Chianti but with pine cones.

Inside, Frank Sinatra, Jr., 19, was sitting in his under shorts and T-shirt, finishing up a room-service chicken dinner with John Foss, 26, a trumpet player in the Dorsey band.

They were due on stage at Harrah's Tahoe Lounge for a 10 o'clock show — the sixth day of a three-week run there.

Frank Sinatra, Jr.
Frank Sinatra, Jr.

It was 9 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 8, 1963, when Keenan raised his knuckles and knocked. The door was unlocked, and young Sinatra invited the visitor in.

"Hi, guys," said Keenan. "I've got a package for you."

Sinatra gestured toward the dresser and said, "Put it over there."

Unburdened of the box, Keenan whipped out the revolver tucked in trousers and called out to Amsler, who stepped into the room brandishing his own pistol.

"Don't make any noise, and nobody gets hurt," Keenan snarled, trying to sound tough.

They bound Foss with masking tape and allowed Sinatra to don shoes, trousers and a coat — but no socks or proper shirt.

Soon Sinatra found himself sitting blindfolded in the Impala, which Keenan guided through a blizzard down the Sierra Nevadas toward a hideout house he had rented in Canoga Park, a Los Angeles suburb eight hours from Lake Tahoe.

Frank Sinatra, Sr.
Frank Sinatra, Sr.

The scheme was crazy on so many levels.

Keenan and Amsler, 23-year-old former high school classmates, were greenhorn criminals. It certainly was their first kidnapping.

Their victim, sitting in the backseat, was the namesake of the most famous entertainer in America. With ties to the highest echelons of both government and organized crime, Sinatra, Sr. could squash Keenan and Amsler like bugs.

So the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr. was a half-baked act poorly executed by witless amateurs — and the second most infamous kidnapping in American history, after that of the Lindbergh Baby  in 1932.

Inevitably, of course, it more or less worked.

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