The Real Reason Frank Sinatra Always Carried 10 Dimes With Him

By: Alyssa Miller | Published: Dec 12, 2023

Frank Sinatra always carried 10 dimes in his pocket for a very personal reason: the kidnapping of his son, Frank Jr. Just days after the assassination of JFK in November 1963, 19-year-old Frank Sinatra Jr. was snatched from his hotel room at Harrah’s Club Lodge in Lake Tahoe. Locked away for four days in a house in Los Angeles, the kidnappers demanded $240,000 (which is equivalent to more than $2.4 million in 2023) in ransom from his father.

The podcast “The Grand Scheme: Snatching Sinatra” retells the kidnapping from one of the perspectives of the kidnappers who masterminded the infamous scheme. What about this event made Sinatra carry dimes in his pocket? Let’s get into it.

Why Was Frank Sinatra Jr. Kidnapped? 

The kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr. was motivated by money. The three kidnappers, Barry Keenan, Joe Amsler, and John Irwin were hoping to make quick money by kidnapping the son of a legendary singer.

A family portrait of Frank Sinatra, his first wife Nancy Barbato Sinatra, and their three children: Nancy, Tina, and Frank Jr..

Source: Movie Life/Wikimedia Commons

Keenen, who was a classmate of Nancy Sinatra, Frank Jr.’s sister, had been in a car accident earlier that year. The pain became addicted to Percodan, a muscle relaxer and tranquilizer, that helped ease his chronic pain, quickly bankrupting him.

Who Kidnapped Frank Sinatra Jr.?

To Keenan, the decision to kidnap Frank Jr. was justified by some twisted logic. “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.” Other reasons suggest that Keenan had a personal grudge against Sinatra Sr. and was hoping to gain notoriety by kidnapping his son.

Photo of Frank Sinatra, Jr. performing on The Red Skelton Show.

Source: CBS Television/Wikimedia Commons

Keenan recruited a high school friend, Joe Amsler, and his mother’s former boyfriend, John Irwin. Together, the three tried to kidnap Frank Jr. in Arizona, then in Los Angeles, but bailed on both attempts.

Why Was Frank Sinatra Jr. in Lake Tahoe? 

Keenan learned that Frank Jr. was going to be in Lake Tahoe, Nevada to perform a concert. This would be the trio’s last attempt to nab Frank Jr. before the singer took off to Europe. On December 8, 1963, Keenan and Amsler entered the hotel room, pretending to be delivering a package.

Sign outside of Harrah's resort in Tahoe, NV

Source: Library of Congress

Unfortunately for the kidnappers, the plan already had a wrench thrown into it. John Foss, the trumpet player in Frank Jr.’s band, was eating chicken with the young singer. Keenan and Amsler tied Foss up, then took Frank Jr. out to their car.

How Did Everyone Discover Frank Sinatra Jr. Was Kidnapped? 

Foss quickly untied himself to call the police once the coast was clear. Authorities were on the lookout for Keenan and Amsler, hoping to find the car that Frank Jr. was being held hostage in. “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.'”

A telephone, a pen, and a notepad on the floor. A telephone, notepad, pen and paper on a carpet. Public domain stock photo.

Source: pixabay

Keenan was able to talk his way out of a police roadblock and arrived safely at their hideout in Los Angeles. Irwin shortly joined the kidnappers.

Frank Sinatra Starts Carrying 10 Dimes With Him

On December 10, Irwin called Frank Sinatra Sr. and demanded $240,000 for the safe release of his son. Irwin also told Sinatra Sr. that they would only stay in contact through payphones. In 1963, payphones could only be paid for with dimes.

Publicity photo of Frank Sinatra recording at Capitol Studios.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sinatra followed the instructions and began to carry 10 dimes with him at all times, afraid that he wouldn’t have enough coins available to him to continue talking to the kidnappers. This traumatizing event would make this a habit that Sinatra would never break, not even after death.


Frank Sinatra Jr. Was Released Before the Money Was Exchanged

On December 11, Sinatra gathered the money demanded and delivered it to an agreed-on drop-off point. Nervous that the drop-off was going wrong, Irwin released Frank Jr. The 19-year-old singer walked around until ending up in Bel Air. He found a security guard and was driven up to the house of Nancy Barbato.

Thankfully, Sinatra’s son was returned unharmed. Unfortunately, the kidnapping of Frank Jr. was a traumatic event for the Sinatra family. Frank Jr. was quiet and distanced himself from everyone.


The Kidnappers Get Caught in a Few Days

Thinking they got away with the crime, Irwin took off to New Orleans. On the way, Irwin stopped in San Diego to visit his brother. Irwin confided in his brother about the kidnapping, and his brother called the authorities. The FBI captured all three kidnappers on the same day, as well as all of the ransom money.

Barry Keenan, Joe Amsler, and John Irwin mugshots

Source: FBI

Keenan testified that the crime was a publicity stunt during their trial on February 10, 1964. While the story was proven false, many believed that this was simply a publicity stunt that was organized by the Sinatra family. Today, there are still some who believe that Frank Jr. planned his kidnapping.


What Happened to Frank Sinatra Jr.’s Kidnappers? 

Keenan and Amsler were sentenced to life in prison, plus 75 years, the maximum sentence for their crime. Because of this sentencing, the two qualified for psychiatric observation. Irwin was sentenced to 75 years.

Brown Wooden Box on a Striped Foam Mattress

Source: RDNE Stock project/Pexels

“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.”


Frank Sinatra Jr.’s Kidnappers Get Out in Less Than Five Years

Almser and Irwin ended up only serving three and a half years in prison, while Keenan served four and a half. Released from prison in 1968, Keenan embarked on a new career as a real estate agent, amassing an estimated net worth of $17 million by 1983. The kidnapper made more money through his hard work than through the kidnapping.

The three suspects in the Frank Sinatra Jr. kidnapping are shown in court 1/20. (L-R) Barry Keenan, 23, Clyde Amsler, 23, and John Irwin, 42. Attorneys for the three men charged with the 12/8/63 kidnapping of Sinatra Jr. pulled out all stops 1/20 in legal skirmishing for what promises to be a colorful and heated trial.

Source: Getty Images

In 1998, Keenan told his story to the New Times Los Angeles. In 1999, Columbia Pictures offered him and his co-conspirators $1.5 million for the rights to their story, hoping to make the story into a film.


Frank Sinatra Jr. Sues His Kidnappers

Upon learning that his kidnappers were being offered over a million dollars for a film deal, Frank Jr. filed a lawsuit to block the deal based on California’s Son of Sam law, a statute that forbids felons from profiting financially from stories based on their crimes.

Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Los Angeles, California

Source: Slices of Light/Flickr

Keenan argued that the law violated his First Amendment rights, but Frank Jr. won the case after a long legal battle and several appeals.


Frank Sinatra Was Buried With 10 Dimes in His Pocket

When Sinatra passed away in May 1998, reports came out that the acclaimed singer was buried with a bottle of whiskey, cigarettes, a lighter, and 10 dimes in his pockets. It was a tradition that Sinatra was afraid to let die after his son’s traumatizing kidnapping.

Entertainers Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra with with their sons, Dean Paul Martin and Frank Sinatra Jr. on the set of 'The Dean Martin Show' Christmas special in 1967 in Los Angeles, California

Source: Martin Mills/Getty Images

In 2016, Frank Jr. passed away. Keenan is still alive today, residing in Los Angeles, California. He is still telling his side of the story, providing excerpts when asked to give them to anyone who’ll listen.