The Perfect Crime
By October 1963, Barry Keenan was only 23 years old, but was down and feeling sorry for himself. The University High School graduate was from a broken home, already divorced, a failed salesman, and had dabbled in the stock market without sustained success. Keenan also had a criminal record, with previous arrests for burglary and petty theft. On top of everything else, he was abusing prescription medication, and saw himself as facing financial ruin. He began to feel desperate, allowing his drug-addled mind to hatch a wild scheme to kidnap the son and namesake of Hollywood royalty — Frank Sinatra Jr.
When you have a problem, even if you’re delusional, you ask your friends for help. So Keenan approached his best friend and laid his cards on the table — calculated, efficient, with a detailed plan in writing, and a request for money to get things started. Barry was a clever fellow, and reveled in having friends (or at least a friend) in high places.
Career-wise (and mentally at the time) Dean Torrence was light years removed from his best friend, Barry Keenan. Dean was a rock star, half of Jan & Dean, a duo whose music and physical attributes personified the golden era of Southern California’s allure — beaches, girls, surfing, carefree living, and the culture of the automobile. By late ’63, Jan & Dean were flying high with songs co-written and produced by Jan Berry. “Surf City” had hit #1 nationally that summer, “Honolulu Lulu” cracked the Cash Box Top 10 in October (#11 on Billboard), and the Surf City LP went Top 40. Jan & Dean were on the radio, on television, and they drove expensive sports cars. Barry Keenan wanted the same kind of money and power (and maybe a political position). He just wanted a jump start, a finish line without running.
Dean met with Keenan on the campus of the University of Southern California (USC), where 23-year-old Torrence was a student in the school’s design and architecture program. While hitting it big in the music business, both Jan Berry and Dean were fulltime college students. Go-getters who got things done. Jan Berry was accepted to medical school at the California College of Medicine (now UC Irvine) in March 1963.
Whatever problems Keenan was having, he and Dean were still tight, brothers even. Former classmates at Uni High (along with Jan Berry and Nancy Sinatra), they had invested in the stock market together. If Barry wanted to talk, Dean would listen. Why not? And he certainly got an earful — details of a “perfect crime,” a foolproof scheme where failure was not an option, not even to be considered. Easy as 1, 2, 3.
Dean began lending money to Keenan.
News broke quickly in the aftermath of the kidnapping on a Sunday night, December 8, 1963. Frank Jr. had been snatched at gunpoint from a motel room at Harrah’s Club at Lake Tahoe — a flashy casino strip in Stateline that straddles the border between California and Nevada, on the lake’s south shore. In an age when rock ‘n roll ruled, 19-year-old Frank Jr. was following in dad’s footsteps, on the crooner circuit, touring with a revamped Tommy Dorsey Orchestra (his old man’s former outfit, led by Sam Donahue). At the time of the grab, the band was on day six of a three-week gig at Harrah’s.
The case is infamous, and the tale has been told in vivid detail. Bungling criminals, agitated mastermind, insanely good luck at road blocks, a thoughtful and cooperative captive, one suspect’s numerous stints in the trunk of the getaway car, Sinatra Sr.’s command post at the Mapes Hotel in Reno, the phone calls, the $240,000 ransom drop, and Junior’s release near his mother’s home in Bel Air. In all, a harrowing seven days in December.
The saga has been presented as comic farce. Indeed, it was a sensational case with big headlines — a poster caper for the word bizarre. The suspects (Keenan and two accomplices) were dubbed “rank amateurs” by the prosecuting attorney. The country (suspects included) was still reeling from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November. Jack Ruby had shot and killed Kennedy’s assassin on live television two days later, and the Sinatra kidnapping headlines followed less than a month after. In this uncertain and turbulent climate, many thought America was falling apart, her citizens losing their minds.
And through it all, 46-year-old tough-guy Frank Sinatra Sr. was more than just angry. From his sleepless, chain-smoking, coffee-swilling vigil at the Mapes, through the ransom calls, money drop, and Junior’s safe release, Big Frank was scared. He had feared for his young son’s life, and rightly so. Pop was immediately in touch with Attorney General Bobby Kennedy and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. The Feds were on it.
Yet Time magazine did a spread on the case in late December, and was among the first to comment on suspicious thinking: “As the drama continued to unfold, there were rumors that it was all a publicity stunt or some other sort of hoax, and indeed that was one of the first avenues of investigation probed by the FBI. Then, too, there was the matter of Frank Sr.’s genial flirtation with a kind of shadow Clan of his own, consisting of high-echelon hoods. No one figured out the connection, if any, but many were prepared to view the kidnapping as something less than the real thing. They were wrong.”
The hapless suspects were brought to trial in short order, just two months after the crime. Three days before opening arguments, a list of 27 names — including both Sinatras and Junior’s mother — was given to the U.S. Attorney’s office at the end of a pre-trial conference. Not surprisingly, Dean Torrence was on the list, as was partner Jan Berry.
The defense witnesses (not including the Sinatras) were ordered to appear in U.S. Judge William G. East’s courtroom at 9:30 a.m. on Monday, February 10, 1964. Jan Berry, though not connected to the crime in any way save association with Dean, had been ordered to “bring written contracts, notes, memorandum as between yourself and others pertaining to arrangements made for the alleged removal of Frank Sinatra Jr., records of monies received and to be received for the alleged removal of Frank Sinatra Jr.” Not all of the subpoena requests were actually served. But this was scary stuff, and Berry was none too pleased about it.
Headlines flashed after the opening day of the trial: “Staged With Consent, Defense Says — Jury Told Unnamed Singer Financed ‘Publicity Scheme’.”
Defense attorney George A. Forde declared, “We intend to show that certain people financed the alleged kidnapping, which I would call an advertising venture.” In his opening statement, Forde argued that Frank Sinatra Jr. agreed to his own kidnapping — a plot financed by a “mystery man” . . . a “mysterious financier” . . . in an effort to win fame and money like his movie star father. The “kidnapping” was masterminded and financed by an unnamed singer who has “cut two million records.” Yes, a prominent singer — not Sinatra Sr. — financed the kidnap activities including rental of cars and houses involved in the plot. “If this was a kidnapping,” scoffed Forde, “I’ll be on the next moon-shot.”
Forde also pointed out that Sinatra Jr.’s career had been on the upswing since the incident, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, “preceding the Beatles,” and was booked for a tour of Europe.
Next up was defense attorney Gladys Towles Root, a well-known and outlandish figure in Los Angeles legal circles. The New York Times later noted : “Mrs. Root, who began to practice law in 1929, became known for her attire, including furs, feathers, outsize costume jewelry and towering hats that sometimes were festooned with flashing lights.” Based on photos taken during the trial, Root looked like she could have stepped out of Jan & Dean’s yet-to-be-written Bach-inspired classic, “The Anaheim, Azusa & Cucamonga Sewing Circle, Book Review and Timing Association.”
Root was the first to name the “mystery singer,” arguing that Dean Torrence shared a safety deposit box with Barry Keenan, and that $1,870 of the ransom money was found in the box by federal agents. This was the first evidence presented tying Dean to the ransom money.
Dean admitted having the deposit box, but said it was all Keenan’s idea. After the three defendants were arrested, FBI agent Timothy Donovan accompanied Dean to the Century City Branch of the California Bank. Dean watched Donovan pull an envelope out of the box, but testified that he didn’t know there was any money in it at the time. If he wasn’t already, Dean was no doubt starting to get nervous.
Another witness, Theodore M. Beck, explained that the FBI found an undisclosed amount of money in his closet after a visit from Keenan, who spent the night at Beck’s apartment on December 11, three days after the crime. But Beck denied knowing it had been left there, or knowing of any plan to abduct Frank Jr. Under cross examination, however, Beck admitted to being acquainted with Dean Torrence. Dean must have been loosening his collar.
Lou Adler, Jan & Dean’s manager, emphasized that Dean had “nothing to do with the case other than that he is a friend of Keenan.” Adler also said he believed the deposit box was for some stocks purchased by Keenan for Torrence.
The bold Mrs. Root declared: “This was a planned contractual agreement between Frank Sinatra and others connected with him . . . Was this the publicity he had been looking for to make ladies swoon over him like poppa?”
Root would later pay a price for her defensive zeal.
A third defender, Charles Crouch, called the kidnapping “a comedy of errors . . . like a movie script.” Jurors, he argued, must “decide whether a crime has been committed . . . We’ll show that Frank Jr. was involved in chicanery from start to finish.”
On the witness stand, Frank Sr. and the young Sinatra both emphatically denied that the kidnapping was a hoax or stunt.
By Friday, February 14, the defense had begun a blistering and aggressive cross-examination of Frank Jr., who was asked why he didn’t cry out at the roadblock, and why he hadn’t tried to escape when several opportunities had presented themselves. In other words, how can you say you’re a victim here?
Frank Jr., now 20, answered: “It’s a terrible experience to go through what I did and then find that I am on trial — and not the defendants . . . It’s a mark on my integrity and guts that will stay with me for the rest of my life.” Junior said he had cooperated with his abductors out of fear for his personal safety, and for the safety of others (like maybe a cop at a roadblock in a snowstorm). Keenan was unstable and had a gun. True enough, and one can be sure that Big Frank was seething.
Monday, February 24, sparked the first explosive headlines of the trial: “Perjury Confessed by Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer; Singer ‘Knew’ of Kidnapping — Rock ‘n’ Roller Startles Court with Sinatra Statement; Rock ‘n Roll Singer Changes His Tune; Reverses Self.”
Why? Because Dean Torrence took the stand during the morning session and lied to the federal prosecutor trying the case.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas R. Sheridan was “bespectacled and scholarly,” 34 years old, and spoke with a thick Boston accent. He had also been appointed a special assistant to U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (brother of the late president) in 1962. If facing the wrath of Frank Sinatra wasn’t enough, the defendants were being tried by a prosecutor with ties to the Kennedy family (which in itself, was another tie to Sinatra).
In the morning session Dean denied having any advance knowledge of the kidnapping plot. But he did acknowledge that he and Keenan had been best friends for six years. “He was my best friend and he didn’t have a cent,” explained Torrence. He lent Keenan money “so he could eat — he didn’t have any money at all.” Dean said that Keenan owed him $1,200.
Sheridan hammered Dean with questions: “Did you lend money to defendant Barry Worthington Keenan for the purpose of financing the abduction of Frank Sinatra Jr.? . . . Did you discuss it (the kidnapping) with anyone prior to Dec. 8? . . . Did Mr. Keenan give you $25,000 in a paper sack, hand it to you on the lawn, on Dec. 11? . . . Did Mr. Keenan tell you he went to Tijuana to buy the guns?” All of Dean’s answers were variations of “no sir” and “I did not.”
Dean said Keenan came to his house on December 11 and offered to pay off his debts. Dean said he didn’t accept any money, and told Keenan he could repay him later. “I was suspicious of how he accumulated all that money in that short a time,” explained Torrence.
A lighter moment occurred when Dean was asked by defense attorney Forde about his profession: “‘We bake . . . we make records [as Jan & Dean]’ . . . Later, he explained he was using the word ‘fake’ rather than ‘bake’ . . . ‘Do you sing?’ Forde asked. ‘Yes,’ sighed Torrence, ‘but I wish I were a better singer’ . . . He described the ‘fake’ process as dubbing one sound track over another to get a special effect.”
Another more ominous result of that morning’s testimony? The defense won a motion “to have both Frank Sinatra Sr. and the young kidnap victim make command performances on behalf of the three defendants.” At this point, Dean was really feeling the pressure, and a return of the Sinatras probably didn’t help his state of mind.
During the mid-afternoon recess, Dean approached Sheridan, and the prosecutor in turn conferred with Judge East. This set the stage for an afternoon that would soon have everyone talking.
With court back in session, Torrence took the stand and “startled judge, jurors, and attorneys.”
Sheridan said to Dean: “I understand you want to make an amendment to your testimony.”
Dean: “Yes, I do . . . I’m afraid I made up some stories. I did know about the so-called kidnapping and I did get some money and I gave it back.”
The place was abuzz, and Judge East, age 55 and silver-haired, grumbled: “I’m conscious of the fact that I’ve had perjury committed in this courtroom and I am desperately concerned by it . . . disturbed about it. The matter, of course, will have to be dealt with . . . It will have to be dealt with later.” As in after the kidnapping trial.
Dean testified that he had lied about prior knowledge of the plan. Sheridan asked the “soft spoken . . . sandy haired singer” when he did first hear about the wild scheme.
Dean: “About October, from Barry Keenan. He said he was going to be involved in a crime and would like to tell me about it. I let him talk. He told me his whole plan — how he was going to abduct him [Frank Jr.] and things of that sort.” Torrence said this conversation had probably taken place at his home.
Sheridan: “He said he was going to abduct Frank Sinatra, Jr.? Did he say where?
Dean: “I don’t think he said where. I don’t think he’d thought of that . . . I didn’t think it was such a good idea.” Keenan, in fact, had a long written (perhaps fluid) plan in place. Torrence then said Keenan came back over a few days later and described some new ideas he’d added to the plan.
Dean: “Probably a few days later he said he had new ideas about how — just things of the whole operation . . . He went into detail. He told how the operation was to go off. He said he’d probably buy a house and how he’d have the phones installed.”
Sheridan: “Did he tell you anyone was involved with him?” Dean said, “No.”
Sheridan: “Well, now, did you loan him money for the kidnap? . . . Was there any indication that the money you were lending him was to be used in this connection (with the kidnapping)?”
Dean: “Well, at first I loaned him money just as a friend. I guess that would be the way it was up to the time he told me about the plan . . . Several days later he came back for more money. I was glad to lend him money to keep him living. I offered to get him a job. He said he didn’t want a job. This was what he was going to do. He said, ‘I’d rather be dead than not do this.'”
The L.A. Times reported that Torrence appeared “near tears as his story unfolded.”
Dean explained that Keenan brought a paper sack containing approximately $25,000 (significantly more than the $1,200 he owed Torrence) and left it in the shower at Dean’s house on December 11. “I didn’t count it,” Dean said of the money. Of all the hiding places, Keenan somehow decided on the shower at the Torrence family home at 2145 Benecia Ave. in West L.A., where Dean lived with his parents. After Keenan stashed the money, Dean’s mom Natalie made breakfast for her son’s friend; and then Keenan split.
Dean: “I left it (the money) there all day and tried to get in touch with him.” He finally reached Keenan two days after he’d dropped off the money.
Dean said, “Friday I told him I’d like to give it back.” They met in a restaurant parking lot in Culver City (Keenan was accompanied by a friend named Dennis Gray) and Dean said: “I gave him back the money . . . told him I was sorry the whole thing happened. I’ve been such a fool. He said, ‘I’m a fool, too.’ I said, ‘If there’s anything possible I can do for you I’ll do it.”
Sheridan: “Did Keenan tell you it was a publicity stunt or a hoax?” Dean said, “No.”
Sheridan: “Your position is that now you have told the full truth?”
Dean: “Yes . . . It bothered me and doesn’t seem real. I never thought I’d be here. It’s like a fantasy . . . When you have all sorts of lies thrown at you the only thing you can do is come back . . . You feel like everybody’s lying and what can you do? . . . It doesn’t seem so involved until you get here. Once I got down here I realized how serious this was. I decided to ‘fess up. You get involved in lies. So many people threw lies at me . . . You just get caught in lies.”
Sheridan: “When you spoke of lies being thrown at you is it your opinion that any agent of the FBI or I or anybody in my office lied to you?” Dean said, “No.”
On cross examination, defense attorney George Forde asked Dean if anyone on the defense’s side had lied to him. “No,” retorted Dean, “but you’ve made accusations that were not proper.”
Forde pressed Dean on his knowing about the plot beforehand. Dean answered that Keenan “didn’t say like he needed money to pull it off, the kidnapping or anything like that.”
The press noted: “The defense, moving rapidly once he [Torrence] made his admission, was unable to draw any statement to confirm its longstanding argument — that Frank Sinatra, Jr. consented to be kidnapped.”
Dean: “I just thought it was a story. Not many people go around and kidnap Frank Sinatra Jr. . . . It all seems like a story book. When someone comes up to you and tells you he’s going to kidnap someone, you don’t really believe it.”
Forde asked Torrence if he had seen Keenan’s 27-page booklet outlining detailed plans for the abduction.
Dean: “Basically, yes. I looked at it. I only saw a couple of hand written pages.”
During a terse cross examination, Dean was accused of saying: “If things get hot, all you have to do is bring Frank Sinatra Jr. into our home and everything will be allright [sic].” Torrence flatly denied saying this. The defense also brought up the fact that the Torrence home on Benecia was only two blocks from Frank Jr.’s apartment at 1940 Beverly Glen Blvd. But Dean insisted he didn’t know where Frankie lived.
The L.A. Times noted: “Although his story changed, Torrence insisted all day that he had no knowledge of a hoax or publicity stunt . . . Torrence said he hadn’t told his story to anyone, including the FBI, before his surprise return to the witness chair.”
Judge East said he was “gratified” that Torrence had decided to come back to the witness stand and tell the “full truth.” . . . “Torrence said his conscience bothered him after his earlier testimony.”
The Associated Press reported Dean’s confession as “rocking” the trial . . . “electrifying a federal courtroom,” and that Torrence was the “star witness.” United Press International called Dean’s confession “one of the most dramatic moments of the trial . . . a surprising admission.”
According to the L.A. Times, Dean “was casual and almost flippant during testimony.”
“After a stiff cross-examination,” continued the Times, “Torrence left the Federal Building and told newsmen he’d been cleared by federal authorities . . . The statement was disputed by the U.S. attorney’s office, which said it was studying Torrence’s sudden reversal . . . [Co-defendant Joe] Amsler, as he was being led in chains from the courtroom, smiled broadly and said [of Dean’s testimony], ‘At last, the truth is coming out’ . . . And Amsler’s attorney, Morris Lavine, said, ‘It’s a break for the truth. We’ve got the fourth man who financed the deal’ . . . Torrence said he changed his story because, ‘I promised my parents I’d always tell the truth.'”
With testimony from defendants Joe Amsler and John Irwin (Keenan’s accomplices) set for early March, it wouldn’t be the last time the court would hear the name Dean Torrence.
Letter, Statement, and a Confident Defense
On Wednesday, February 26, a letter written by Barry Keenan was introduced into evidence after being found by the FBI in a safety deposit box — the very box Keenan held jointly with Dean Torrence. The letter was found on December 17, 1963. So not only was a tiny portion of the ransom money found in the box, but also “the biggest single bombshell of the trial.”
Keenan’s long and rambling missive betrayed his mental instability, his shallow values, and erased any doubt about the hoax theory:
“To my parents and loved ones . . . If you read this letter, I am either dead or under arrest for felony kidnapping . . . Why? As you all know, money has always been of utmost importance to me. Oftentimes it has brought trouble of one kind or another upon me . . . After realizing that I was incapable of earning enough money to keep up with all my debts and high living I decided to take a carefully calculated risk by undertaking a major crime. . . If I had succeeded I would have netted approximately $100,000 which would have enabled me to become a millionaire in 10 or 15 years, barring a war or depression . . . Kidnapping seemed to offer the least risk for the money, so I set to work planning a perfect crime. Naturally if you are reading this, the crime was unperfect . . . You will see that this was not a spur of the moment action. I wanted to do the things that needed doing. I hoped that I might have helped you all gain a little happiness. I would have paid off all my bills — slowly enough not to raise suspicion . . . I wanted my mother to have a new kitchen and a color TV . . . By the way, I would have explained the money as gambling winnings, and that for the past year and a half I had been constantly broke because I could never hit a winning streak. Now I had finally hit a winning [streak] and cleaned up . . . My dad’s family would have been a greater problem as they need more help than anything else . By hoping that I could sell my dad on my gambling story, I would help him get back on his feet financially, mentally and physically . . . The few real friends that I have would have received very nice Christmas gifts . . . With the rest of the money I would have set about slowly making semi-conservative investments in stocks, bonds, and a small business or two . . . Well, this note is not too clear, but it is being written with the thought in mind that it will never be read. I love you all. Please try not to be upset. Love again, Barry.”
Defendant John Irwin also issued a statement outlining his involvement in the plot. Both the letter and statement were read into evidence under vigorous objection by the defense. But over the weekend, the defense was outwardly exuding confidence. Attorney Morris Lavine said of the Keenan letter and Irwin statement: “It’s all part of the script. The [Keenan] brochure was written way back in October. Even the Barry Keenan letter was part of the script. It was written way back in October . . . There have been no surprises to us — only to the government.”
Lavine, Forde, and Crouch said, “they feel the government’s case suffered” when Dean Torrence “first denied knowing about the plot and later admitted it . . . Torrence, 24, a rock ‘n’ roll singer, faces possible action from U.S. Judge William G. East, who declared the witness had committed perjury.”
“The FBI did not solve this alleged kidnapping,” boasted Gladys Towles Root. “John Irwin is the one who solved it for them” — by having released Frank Jr. of his own accord, near the boy’s mother’s house.
Testimony of Joe Amsler and John Irwin
Joseph Clyde Amsler was the first of the accused kidnappers to take the stand, and his testimony brought more headlines referencing Dean Torrence: Defendant Says Singer Financed Sinatra Kidnap.
Theresa Gray, age 22 (“the pretty housewife”), of 10709 Northgate Ave. in Culver City, had shed light on Amsler’s activities after the crime. She testified that the kidnappers had come to her apartment on the night of December 12. In fact, they spent the night. She said she walked in on her husband — Dennis Gray, who had been with Keenan when Dean Torrence returned money in the restaurant parking lot — as he was celebrating with Keenan and Amsler. “The money was all over the place,” she said. “The boys were throwing it at each other. They took off their shoes and were walking around in it barefooted. They began playing football with it.” She said someone asked her for a Monopoly game, so they could play with “real money,” but she didn’t have one. Dennis Gray soon became suspicious; and Theresa said Amsler described the abduction, and that he’d once thought of killing himself because he was so nervous and scared.
Amsler had been arrested in Culver City on December 14, 1963. J. Edgar Hoover said $168,927 of the ransom money was recovered at Amsler’s apartment. Like Keenan, Amsler had a record, having been nabbed three times for “violating the alcoholic beverage control act of trespassing.” Joe had also attended University High with Torrence. In fact Amsler, along with Keenan and other familiar names like Jan Berry, Arnie Ginsburg, and Jim Bruderlin (actor James Brolin), had been a member of the Hi-Y school club The Barons. He had also briefly dated Jill Gibson, who was now Jan Berry’s longtime love interest and sometime songwriting partner. During the trial, Joe was described as a handsome shellfish or abalone diver. He was also described as a former amateur boxer — a claim that angered some boxers for giving the sport a bad name.
Keenan had approached Amsler in September 1963 and told him he had “the perfect crime, a kidnapping,” and Joe testified that Keenan had told him Dean Torrence was financing the operation.
Amsler: “Keenan had a script for this operation and he said it was foolproof because the victim was to know beforehand — and the victim was Frank Sinatra, Jr.”
When they were driving to Tahoe en route to the kidnapping site, Amsler asked Keenan how they were going to pay for a motel room. “He [Keenan] said, ‘If we need money we can get in touch with the backers . . . the financier of the operation.’ . . . I asked him who that was and he said, ‘You know, Dean’ . . . He commented that Dean was the financier. This shocked me . . . I said ‘You mean Dean Torrence?’ and he said ‘yes’.”
When Joe asked Keenan how many other people were involved, Keenan said that “Dean Torrence, Johnny Weismuller, Dennis Gray and Donnie Bray and some other people I didn’t know were in on it.” (Dean had earlier testified that he knew who Amsler was, but not John Irwin.)
During the abduction, “I stood around dumbfounded,” confessed Amsler. “It didn’t seem right to me. It shocked me.” Amsler testified that he thought he and Keenan were going skiing in Tahoe, until Keenan said they were there to grab Frank Jr. At various stages Joe said he was “shaken up . . . in a state of shock . . . nearly losing my mind . . . in tears.”
John Irwin, described as a 42-year-old “husky house painter,” was the next defendant to testify. Irwin had dated Keenan’s divorced mother for six months after meeting her in La Paz, Mexico in 1958. Irwin had a criminal record dating back to 1947. Previous charges against him had included assault and battery, desertion, nonsupport, and drunk and disorderly conduct. Iwrin’s violations had occurred in New Jersey, Maine, Massachusetts and California. Irwin’s brother had turned him in after John spilled the beans. James Irwin choked back tears as he described calling the San Diego FBI office around 8:15 a.m. on Friday, December 13, 1963 — at his brother’s request.
Irwin: “I always had a paternal feeling about Barry. He was about 18 when I first met him. Then last fall he called me and said he had an idea for a perfect crime.” Under questioning from defense attorney Root, Irwin said, “I laughed and told [Barry] I didn’t believe there was any such thing as a perfect crime . . . I was shocked — It shook me up — and was a pretty big idea.”
Keenan had rented a home at 8143 Mason Ave. in Canoga Park. This was the hideout where Frank Jr. was brought after being abducted from Tahoe. Ronald Bray, 21, another classmate of Keenan’s, helped the mastermind buy furniture for the place and helped scope out a route for the ransom drop. Bray even accompanied Keenan on an unsuccessful trip to Tijuana, Mexico, to buy guns. Keenan finally bought a small handgun from a dealer in Phoenix, Arizona.
Irwin: “Barry and I went down to Arizona in October  to look at Frank Jr., who was appearing at the Arizona State Fair . . . On the way back from Arizona, Barry brought up the name of Jan and Dean and told me Dean is one of the backers of this plan . . . It didn’t mean much to me, as I had never heard of Jan and Dean, except I figured they were in show business.” Irwin also said that Dean had put up the money to finance the “jaunt to Arizona.”
Irwin: “Barry said Dean didn’t know Frank Jr. but he knew a lot of his personal habits. He said he would arrange a meeting between Dean and me. But I couldn’t believe Dean knew any more about this scheme than Keenan . . . It was no perfect scheme. It couldn’t possibly succeed, and I wanted no part of it.”
In November 1963, Keenan took Irwin to meet Dean. “On the way over, explained Irwin, “we saw a small sports car. Keenan stopped and so did the other car. Dean was in the other car and he asked, ‘Where are you going?’ . . . Barry said, ‘We are going to look over the job’.” Irwin said Dean then took off, and they [Irwin and Keenan] went over to case Frankie’s apartment.
Not only had they followed Frank Jr. to Phoenix, but Keenan and Irwin were also casing the boy’s movements around Hollywood. According to the L.A. Times, Irwin said he and Keenan witnessed Frank Jr. leaving the Cocoanut Grove with Dean Martin, and also saw him in a car with actress Jill St. John. Irwin also said there were several unsuccessful attempts to nab Frank Jr. outside of his apartment in West L.A. (1940 Beverly Glen Blvd.) All along, Irwin said he was accompanying Keenan in hopes of talking him out of the plot.
After their last unsuccessful attempt, “I thought the whole plan was over,” explained Irwin. “I was relieved and Joe [Amsler] was also.” But a few days later, on December 9, Irwin got a phone call from Keenan saying that Frank Jr. was in custody — and Keenan asked him to make the ransom calls.
Irwin: “I went to his hideout in Canoga Park and Barry asked me to go in and talk with Frank Jr. because he would not tell them how to get in touch with his father or mother . . . Frank Jr. was lying on a bed with a black sleeping mask over his eyes. He would not give me any information, in fact he was indignant about it . . . I could see Barry and Joe were emotionally fatigued and I was afraid some harm would come to Frank Sinatra Jr. . . . Barry said he would give me $30,000. I said if I’m going to get in, I want $50,000. Barry agreed . . . Later Barry became agitated because I was going to get $50,000 just for making some phone calls.”
Irwin: “Frank Jr. and I talked for hours at the Canoga Park house where Barry had put him. He told me how his mother, of Italian ancestry, had reared him strictly. He said people could learn a lot from his mother, who believed in the use of a $2 hair brush instead of paying money for psychiatrists . . . He talked about his father — nothing derogatory — but that he didn’t see him much because his father was so busy . . . The more we talked, the more nervous and upset I became. Finally, I had to tell Frank Jr. that I was under the impression that he knew of this thing — what I assumed to be a publicity stunt . . . He had said nothing about it so I felt I had to bring it up myself . . . Frank told me I shouldn’t talk about it but get him out of there. He felt that Joe and Barry were getting out of hand . . . I told him that I didn’t believe my wife would believe this to be anything else but a major crime. Frank said he would talk to my wife when he got released.”
Barry Worthington Keenan was arrested by the FBI at Imperial Beach, just a few miles from the Mexican border, on December 13, 1963. J. Edgar Hoover said Keenan had $47,938 of the ransom money with him.
The “mastermind” had not testified, and the jury of nine men and three women rejected the defense’s hoax theory. Keenan and Amsler were both convicted — on all six counts of a grand jury indictment — and sentenced to life plus 75 years. They were convicted of the actual abduction at gunpoint. The sentencing occurred 30 minutes after the verdict was read.
Judge East ordered that both Keenan and Amsler undergo a three-month mental evaluation at the Springfield Center for Psychiatric Study in Missouri.
John Irwin was convicted on five counts, but was found innocent on a sixth count — that of aiding and abetting Keenan and Amsler on the December 8 abduction. Irwin’s sentencing was continued indefinitely (facing a maximum term of 75 years).
Amsler’s wife, 20-year-old Bette, was five months pregnant at the time of her husband’s sentencing. She burst into tears on her way out of the building. Keenan’s father hung his head.
The jury had deliberated for 6 hours and 53 minutes, after a trial that lasted 20 days. The verdict was returned at 4:45 p.m., less than one full day after the jury had received the case.
All defense attorneys said they would appeal.
In congratulating the jury, Judge East said that Keenan and Amsler had been “lying to protect themselves.”
East: “I can’t help but feel that you felt as I did when the hallmark of the defendants’ case was struck by the witness Torrence, who, of his own free will, came back to change his testimony . . . Ladies and gentlemen, that was the hallmark of the case . . . He [Torrence] said the whole thing didn’t seem real until he got into court and then he realized that everybody was lying to protect themselves and that he first thought that he would do the same thing . . . That was the hallmark of the defendants’ case. And I’m glad that you saw it as I did.”
And . . . that’s how Dean Torrence emerged unscathed from the trial — or did he?
In a public statement, Frank Sinatra Sr. said, “The jury has rendered a just verdict and we are happy that they and the court were not confused by the false statements and innuendoes made during the trial and elaborated on by the press . . . At this time, I would like to personally thank the FBI as well as Asst. U.S. Atty. Thomas R. Sheridan for the dignified and workmanlike manner in which they conducted the investigation and the trial . . . I think the public will now realize that if any persons were attempting to obtain publicity from these tragic events, the blame should be placed on the defense . . . We hope that this will put an end to what was a very painful incident in our lives.”
When reached for comment after the verdict, Frank Jr. was in Cherry Hill, New Jersey (near Philly), for a performance at the Latin Casino. He said, “The whole business is over with. Let’s forget it.”
But forgetting would not be easy for Jan & Dean . . . and the government had ideas of its own for keeping this debacle in the news.
You don’t fuck with Frank Sinatra . . . and rumors were already flying. On March 7, 1964, Dorothy Kilgallen’s syndicated “Voice of Broadway” column dished on the recent court proceedings:
“Since singer Dean Torrence gave his sensational testimony at the Frank Sinatra Jr. kidnapping trial, he’s been given ‘the chill’ by booking agents and producers. So obviously the word is out. Not many people in show business want to incur the wrath of Frank Sinatra Sr. — his tentacles reach into too many branches of the industry, from movies to records and you-name-it.”
After the furor of the trial had abated, Kilgallen also shot a few barbs at Frank Jr., saying that since the headlines had cooled off, Frankie’s shows were losing money and poorly attended.
What’s interesting about this is that, since at least 1956, Kilgallen had been engaging in a running feud of sorts with Big Frank. She often jabbed Old Blue Eyes in her writings. In return Sinatra joked about Kilgallen, in a negative way, in his nightclub act. No love lost there.
Kilgallen was well connected, and had been writing “The Voice of Broadway” since 1939. She had other outlets, as well. She was the first journalist to correctly report in 1959 that the CIA and Mafia were plotting to assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover started keeping a file on her. In early August 1962, she had been the first journalist to call attention to President John F. Kennedy’s relationship with Marilyn Monroe — and within days, Monroe was found dead. In 1965, Kilgallen herself was found dead, under mysterious circumstances, at the age of 52. It is not known whether her prescription drug-related death was accidental, suicide, or murder. Her cause of death was officially listed as undetermined. But she had recently interviewed Jack Ruby, and had been threatening to break the Kennedy assasination case “wide open.”
A regular panelist on What’s My Line?, Kilgallen had a proven knack for gaining secret information about famous people. So if Sinatra put the word out on Dean Torrence (and by extension Jan & Dean) she was in a position to hear about it. She did — and she was right.
The first casualty for Jan & Dean was a television pilot they’d shot in the fall of 1963 called Surf Scene. With news of the kidnap breaking that December, the pilot did not sell because of Dean’s involvement in the crime. Lew Irwin, Surf Scene’s producer and director, confirmed the fact to this author.
The next axe to fall was more timely, chopping Jan & Dean out of their expected roles in Columbia Pictures’ new film Ride the Wild Surf, starring Fabian, Tab Hunter, Peter Brown, Shelley Fabares, Barbara Eden, and Susan Hart.
By March 1964, when the Sinatra trial ended, location shooting for the film was underway on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. Though their roles in the film were cut, Jan & Dean still sang the title track (co-written and produced by Jan Berry).
On March 15, columnist Mike Connolly spelled it out: “The TV interviews are tripping all over each other trying to tag the singing team of Jan and Dean to talk their heads off on the panel shows. The reason, of course, is the notoriety the team received when their names came up in the Frank Sinatra Jr. kidnapping trial. Columbia Pictures, coincidentally, ‘released’ them from the cast of the new Fabian movie, ‘Ride the Wild Surf.’ But the sales of their latest longplay album since the Sinatra trial have soared to 25,000 a day!”
Jan & Dean’s latest album at the time was Drag City, and it became their highest charting LP. It first hit the album charts in January 1964. It reached #17 on Cash Box on February 15 (#22 Billboard), and stayed in the Top 40 through the first week of March — all during the trial. Drag City stayed on the Cash Box charts for 22 weeks (through May) and for 14 weeks on Billboard.
The duo’s “Drag City” single had peaked at #10 on both singles charts on January 18 — 41 days after the kidnapping and 23 days before the trial started. News headlines about the case were everywhere during this period, and the peak for Dean’s public association was February 25 through the end of the trial in March.
Jan & Dean’s hit single “Ride the Wild Surf” — written by Jan Berry, Brian Wilson, and Roger Christian — and the LP of the same name were released in August to coincide with the film’s debut. The single bowed on September 19, and peaked at #16 on Halloween, staying in the Top 40 for five weeks.
The Ride the Wild Surf LP debuted on Cash Box October 10, reaching #26 during the first week in November (but halting at #66 on Billboard). In the interim, the pair had scored two Top-10 blockbusters with “Dead Man’s Curve” (in the Top 40 for 11 weeks) and “The Little Old Lady (from Pasadena),” (in the Top 40 for 10 weeks) — the latter also headlining a Top 40 album.
Yes, 1964 — to quote the Chairman — “was a very good year” for Jan & Dean; at least on the musical end of the spectrum. The media noted the pair was “red-hot” at the time of the trial. But their film and television projects virtually disappeared when — as a Jersey boy might say — Frank Sinatra gave Jan & Dean “the horns.” That, and the natural inclination of film and television producers (especially in that era) to avoid negative publicity.
As much as their songs had been going gangbusters in ’64, the music scene was changing. The pace slipped in ’65 and bad things began happening to Jan & Dean — especially to Jan Berry.
With Surf Scene and Ride the Wild Surf behind them, Jan & Dean had scored their own feature film. Easy Come, Easy Go — a wild comedy starring Berry and Torrence — was to be a Paramount release and a Dunhill production. It was also aptly titled, because the project ended almost before it began. On August 5, Jan was seriously injured in a train accident on the set — on the first day of filming. A camera crew was on a flatcar, filming an oncoming engine. It wasn’t a matter of yelling “cut.” The engine never stopped coming. It rammed and upended the flatcar, sending members of the film crew flying. Luckily, Dean had gotten off before the crash. About 17 people were injured, including director Barry Shear. Jan tried to jump before impact, but the leap still cost him a bloody compound fracture of his left leg. Doctors considered amputation, but were able to save the appendage. Jan was in a leg-length cast for months, and didn’t fully recover until early 1966.
Instead of rescheduling, the film was cancelled. So . . . why didn’t the engine stop? Did the brakes go out? Was it an accident? A coincidence?
Things were looking up again in late ’65 and early ’66, when Jan & Dean shot yet another television pilot called On the Run; and this time it sold. It was picked up by ABC to air in early ’66. Penned by veteran screenwriter Ruth Brooks Flippen, and directed by the legendary William Asher (of Bewitched and Twilight Zone fame), On the Run was a strange comedy featuring Jan & Dean’s exploits on tour and in the classroom. It had potential.
But dark clouds began to loom again. In early April 1966, a knockoff wheel broke loose from Jan’s new Stingray while he was driving. Scary stuff. He avoided a serious accident and injury, but it was an ominous sign.
The following week, he wasn’t so lucky. On April 12, Jan Berry suffered brain damage and partial paralysis when he lost control of his speeding Corvette and slammed into a parked truck on Whittier Dr. in Beverly Hills. He was in a coma for a month and suffered residual consequences for the rest of his life.
Had someone tampered with Jan’s car in early April? Is that why the knockoff wheel had loosened, or was that simply an accepted hazard with knockoff wheels in general? Did “they” finally succeed on April 12? Did the wrong people know that Dean was living with Jan just before the accident? Could someone have been expecting Dean to possibly drive that Corvette (owned by Jan)? Or was one guy just as good as the other? . . . breaking up the team no matter what? Let’s understand that Jan Berry was hell-for-leather and drove like a maniac. But these are questions that made the rounds among Jan’s family members, inner circle, and friends.
Wild speculation and unsubstantiated rumors — the kind of stuff conspiracy theorists love to ponder.
But whatever troubles Jan & Dean may have run into, they weren’t alone. By the summer of 1964, four months after the Sinatra kidnapping trial ended, two of the defense attorneys were in plenty of hot water.
Epilogue — Defense Attorneys On Trial
In the wake of the three kidnapping convictions, defense attorneys Gladys Towles Root and George Forde found themselves back in court — this time on the wrong side of the tables, under federal indictment. Based on their “hoax” and “publicity stunt” defense of Keenan, Amsler, and Irwin, the two defense attorneys were charged with two counts of inducing their clients to commit perjury during the kidnapping trial. Root and Forde were also charged on one count of obstructing the government and influencing witnesses — “conspiracy and subordination of perjury.”
The prosecutor? Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas R. Sheridan — who else? The guy who had been appointed special assistant to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy in ’62. The same guy who had tried and convicted the kidnappers for the government. Now he was going after the lawyers who had represented the convicts, on the grounds of their defense strategy . . . Wow.
Root and Forde pleaded innocent, and Judge Peirson Hall dismissed the charges that fall, for lack of specifics. But that was only Round One.
On December 10, Root and Forde pleaded innocent to new charges (which were the same as the old charges). A second grand jury indictment — on five counts. One count of conspiracy, two counts of subordination of perjury, and two counts of obstruction of justice.
On June 29, 1965, Judge Hall dismissed the charges for a second time, for the same reasons. The U.S. attorney’s office (Sheridan again) said it would study the ruling and think about serving a new indictment.
December 1967 — Judge Hall agreed to hear a motion to dismiss yet another indictment against Gladys Towles Root (no Forde this time). A five count indictment. She was accused of fabricating the “hoax” story during the kidnapping trial. When the judge agreed to hear her motion, Root wept openly in court. She was accused of inventing a story that a “Mr. West” or “Wes” was the mastermind of the kidnapping plot (based on trial blather from defendant Barry Keenan.)
In May 1967, Amsler and Irwin appealed their convictions, and their cases were reversed by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Amsler and Irwin were re-tried, pleaded guilty, and were both put on 5 years’ probation. Keenan did not appeal, and was still serving a reduced 12-and-half-year sentence.
In April 1968, after hearing motions and enduring stalling tactics by prosecutors, Judge Hall — for a third and final time — dismissed the charges against Mrs. Root for lack of evidence. She was near tears with relief. Root and Forde had been put through the legal ringer for defending their clients (with force and bravado, we might add for context). And Root herself wasn’t out of the woods until ’68, some four years after the kidnapping trial!
You don’t fuck with Frank Sinatra.
But defendants Joe Amsler and John Irwin ended up serving a tiny fraction of their original sentences. Barry Keenan, the drug-addled mastermind, served his reduced sentence, regained his right mind, and became a millionaire real estate developer.
© 2010 Mark A. Moore. All rights reserved.