It was a dark and stormy night. In fact, a full-blown blizzard was raging on the evening of Dec. 8, 1963, when a loud knock rattled the door of room 417 in Harrah's Lodge at South Lake Tahoe. Inside, Frank Sinatra Jr., an aspiring singer and son of the most famous crooner in the world, and John Foss, a trumpet player in the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, were eating dinner. The time was 9:30 p.m. and the two young men were relaxing before their scheduled 10 o'clock performance that night with the Dorsey Orchestra in Harrah's Tahoe Lounge.KidnappedSuddenly, two parka-clad gunmen pretending to be room service waiters barged into their room demanding money. They first bound and gagged Foss, then blindfolded the 19-year-old Sinatra, threw a blue overcoat over his shoulders and forced him out into the snowdrifts toward a white Chevrolet Impala. Before leaving one of the men ripped the telephone line from the wall and warned Foss: "Keep your trap shut for 10 minutes or we'll kill your friend. If we don't make it to Sacramento, your pal is dead."Ten minutes after the kidnappers drove off into the blinding snowstorm, Foss worked free of his bonds and alerted the band's manager, Tino Barzie, in the motel room next door. They immediately called the police. Officers from the Zephyr Cove substation five miles away arrived at the motel within minutes. Since kidnapping is a federal offense, FBI agents from Reno swarmed into the region.
The Chairman of the Board unhingedFrank Sinatra Sr. was at home in Palm Springs when he received word of his son's abduction. The snowstorm had shut down the Tahoe airport so he flew to Reno where he was met by William Raggio, the district attorney of Washoe County. After a failed attempt to drive over icy, storm-swept Spooner Summit (other roads were closed), Sinatra and Raggio returned to Reno where they set up headquarters in a three-room suite at the Mapes Hotel. As the hours dragged on with no word from the kidnappers, Raggio told reporters, "The longer it goes, the worse it looks." Sinatra's press agent, Jim Mahoney, said Sinatra's nerves were a wreck."He has just been sitting and staring at the phone. When it rings, he jumps. I had to practically force him to eat. He doesn't think about eating. He just looks at the phone," Mahoney said. Offers of help, including airplanes, helicopters and mounted horsemen came in from all over the world. Sympathetic telephone calls were received from Attorney General Robert Kennedy in Washington, whose own brother had just been assassinated less than one month before, who promised an all-out rescue effort. Other heartfelt messages of support arrived from political figures and entertainment celebrities. One loyal fan offered $50 to help with the search. The two-state manhunt used nearly 100 California and Nevada sheriff's deputies and 26 FBI agents. This small army had left no stone unturned in their pursuit of the perpetrators. Despite the kidnappers' remark about heading for Sacramento, police soon traced the car's tire chain tracks through six inches of fresh snow. They were heading east toward Carson City, not west toward Donner Pass. Road blocks were thrown up on every highway in the region, but no suspects were apprehended. FBI agents and sheriff's deputies believed that due to the swiftness of their actions, Sinatra and the kidnappers must still be somewhere in the snow-swept region.
RansomOn Monday, Dec. 9, Sinatra received the first of seven phone calls from his son's abductors. He was told to drive to a Carson City service station. Sinatra used an unwatched basement exit at the Mapes Hotel to elude reporters, jumped in a car and sped off to Ron's Gas Station, 30 miles south of Reno. The surprised attendant there sputtered, "Someone's been phoning you here. I thought it was a gag." Another call sent Sinatra to a different gas station for more details regarding the ransom and release. That night Sinatra flew to Southern California to await further instructions. Frank Sinatra Sr. had told reporters, "I would give the world for my son."When the ransom call finally came, Sinatra offered them $1 million if they would return his son safely. Inexplicably, the kidnappers asked for only $240,000 in unmarked bills. Sinatra called his friend Alfred Hart, president of the Citizens National City Bank in Beverly Hills, who put together the ransom package. Sinatra waited at his former wife Nancy's Bel-Air home to wait for the next contact. Reporters flocked to Bel-Air to cover the biggest kidnapping in America since the abduction of the Lindbergh baby in 1932. After several more phone calls of instruction, FBI agent Jerome Crowe left an attaché case full of money between two parked school buses in West Los Angeles. The time was 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 11. Junior released
Two hours later, Frank Jr. was released by one of his captors and picked up by a private security officer about two miles from Nancy's home. Frank Jr. had been held for 54 hours, much of it in the trunk of a car and all of it blindfolded. Of course, his parents were elated to see him home safe and sound. When the good news swept the nation, Robert Kennedy called back to congratulate the family. Frank Sr.'s mother Dolly told reporters back in New Jersey "I was saying the Rosary when the call came. I dropped my rosary beads and fell down in a near faint. This is the happiest moment of my life. We are leaving for California on the 20th. We will spend Christmas together - the whole family." The next day, Dec. 12, was Frank Sr's 48th birthday. He celebrated at his Las Vegas casino, the Sands. "Getting Frankie back is the best birthday present I could ever have," Sinatra told his friends.Less than a week later, the FBI announced the capture of three suspects. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover stated that the culprits were John Irwin, a 42-year-old housepainter, Barry Keenan and Joseph Amsler, both 23 years old and unemployed. The trio admitted to the crime and returned virtually all of the ransom money. Amsler and Keenan were sentenced to life imprisonment plus 75 years, while Irwin, who had been kind to Frank Jr., received a 16-year sentence. Later, all three punishments were drastically reduced and the men paroled. Federal District Judge William Este decided to treat the amateur kidnappers leniently and they served only 12 years in prison among them. In August 1998, Frank Sinatra Jr. won a court order barring Irwin, Keenan and Amsler from earning a reported $1 million from Columbia Pictures for their help with a new film about Frank Sinatra Sr. who died in 1998. Mark McLaughlin's column, "Weather Window," appears monthly in the Sierra Sun. His award-winning books, "Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly" and "Sierra Stories: Trues Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2" are available at local bookstores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.