The story goes that on Sunday, December 8, 1963 1963, Frank Sinatra’s 19 year-old son, Jr was led out of his Lake Tahoe hotel room at gunpoint by mobster Barry Keenan before being locked away for four days during which Keenan and his two associates extracted a $240,000 from the elder Sinatra.
Keenan & co got their cash alright, but while they were collecting Sinatra Jr made his escape and walked from their Los Angeles hideout to his Bel Air home, unscathed. A widely reported case at the time, now,a new Wondery podcast, The Grand Scheme: Snatching Sinatra, tells the caper from the perspective of Keenan who was eventually caught and served time for the scheme.
It isn’t all movie-of-the-week mobster stuff, either. In the first episode Keenan talks about his own and his mother’s struggles with mental illness and drug addiction.
“I actually rode my bicycle into a busy intersection in the hopes that, if it was God’s will, I’d get run over and go straight to heaven,” he says.
As an adult he became addicted to painkillers and struggled to fund his habit. When God spoke to him through his car radio he concocted the plan to kidnap someone. Aged just 23, Keenan was about to take a desperate step.
“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.”
Keenan knew he couldn’t pull it off alone so he recruited his high school friend Joe Amsler and his mother’s former boyfriend John Irwin. The trio began studying Sinatra Jr’s movements and after a few abortive attempts they learned that Sinatra Snr would be playing in Lake Tahoe, Nevada before travelling to Europe. If they wanted to snatch the star’s offspring, this would be their last chance.
Keenan and Amsler entered Sinatra Jr’s hotel room at 9am, posing as delivery men. Jr was hanging out, eating a sandwich with trumpeter John Foss. Keenan pulled out a gun. Then they tied Foss up and bungled Jr outside to a waiting car, telling him to play along to avoid a clash with police.
“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 told 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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