Risky Business

updated 06/15/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/15/1998 01:00AM

He was in a haze then, flying to the moon on booze and Percodan, but Barry Keenan recalls indelibly the night of Dec. 8, 1963, when he went to a Lake Tahoe, Nev., hotel room and kidnapped Frank Sinatra Jr.

"I can see Junior looking at the bullets," says Keenan, now 57, recalling how he waved a revolver in the face of the singer's only son, then 20 and on tour singing in nightclubs. To appreciate Keenan's power trip, consider that to many Americans then, Frank Sinatra, who died May 14, was a vaguely sinister god in a fedora—the one star whose kid you wouldn't dare nap. But Keenan, a school chum of Sinatra's daughter Nancy, thought he had the angles figured. He would "borrow" Frank Jr., invest the ransom and repay Sinatra—with interest. "In my demented state," he says, "I saw it as a business deal."

The kidnapping itself, one of the most sensational since the Lindbergh baby's, was a fiasco. After Frank Jr.'s safe return, most of the ransom was recovered, and Keenan and his two accomplices got life sentences (a term later reduced for complex technical reasons to 12 years). But when he was paroled four years later—the others had already been released—Keenan went through an impressive transformation, morphing from a hapless con to a wealthy entrepreneur. Sobering up, he made, lost, then remade millions as a real estate developer and consultant specializing in resorts and casinos, mostly in the Southwest. He also developed drug-and-alcohol rehab centers and spoke against substance abuse to youth groups.

Not everyone is impressed by Keenan's comeback. "He should still be in the slammer," says Jim Mahoney, Frank Sr.'s former publicist. Others are more forgiving. "He made a mistake," says Long Beach Community College District police chief Michael D. Hole, a friend of Keenan's. "But he is an example of people who can turn their life around."

Recognition of a sort came this year, when Columbia Pictures gave Keenan $1.5 million for the rights to make his story into a 1999 film by Betty Thomas, director of Howard Stern's Private Parts. Frank Jr., now 55, has met with his lawyers to see what steps might be taken to ensure that his abductor doesn't make money from the film, but he needn't fret. Keenan plans to donate his fee to nonprofits, including the Salvation Army and Alcoholics Anonymous. Both his parents—John, a stockbroker, and Mary—were alcoholics.

It wasn't supposed to be such a rocky road for Keenan. As a youth, he lived a life of privilege and promise—one of his best friends was Dean Torrence of Jan and Dean pop-music fame. Sometimes Nancy Sinatra invited him to her Bel Air home. "Frank Sr. was always nice," says Keenan, who said a prayer for Sinatra when he learned of his death.

A UCLA dropout, Keenan became, at 21, the youngest member of the L.A. Stock Exchange. But after a 1961 car accident in which he injured his back, he became addicted to the painkiller Percodan and lost his job. Around that time his father suffered financial setbacks, and his mother tried suicide. "I decided to take care of their problems," Keenan says. "I'd give them money." Crime seemed a quick fix, and he settled on kidnapping. But who to snatch? He prayed for inspiration and got it.

"I knew Frank Jr. had been in boarding school and wasn't close to his father," says Keenan, who had never met this younger Sinatra. His drug-addled rationalization: "A kidnapping would draw them closer." Needing cash to fund the scheme, Keenan went to Torrence, then flush from the hit single "Surf City." " 'I'll give you $500, because that's one of the most creative stories I've ever heard,' " Torrence recalls telling him. "I shrugged it off as a fantasy."

Keenan then recruited his friend Joe Amsler, an aspiring boxer, and John Irwin, his mother's ex-boyfriend. On Dec. 8, posing as room-service waiters at Harrah's in Lake Tahoe, where Frank Jr. was performing, Keenan and Amsler entered room 417. Hustling Junior to their rented car, they drove to L.A. and phoned Frank Sr., who was waiting in Reno. "He was a nervous wreck," recalls publicist Mahoney. Frank Sr. paid the $240,000 ransom, which an FBI agent dropped off in L.A. between two parked school buses. But before Keenan picked up the loot, Irwin panicked and released Frank Jr.

At his trial, Keenan tried to portray the crime as a publicity stunt to boost Frank Jr.'s career. The jury didn't buy it, but the lie lingers in public memory. "It is one of my biggest regrets," says Keenan. "Junior has lived with the stigma the rest of his life."

After Keenan's 1968 release from the maximum security prison at Lompoc, Calif., Torrence treated him to a fund-raiser. "I'd always believed in him," says the singer, now his partner in a chain of burger joints. Keenan used the $18,000 stake to start Golden West Properties, developing office buildings, apartments and a recreational vehicle park in Reno. But he was still drinking and abusing prescription drugs. Salvation came in the form of developer Bob White, his wife, Marce, and their twin daughters Susan and Sasha. Keenan met them in the late '70s in Lake Whitney, Texas, where he developed White Bluff Ranch, a resort community. The Whites became Keenan's surrogate family—in fact he married Sasha, now 51, in 1980. "I didn't know he kidnapped Frank Sinatra Jr.," she says. "I just thought he was this handsome, charismatic go-getter." The marriage, Keenan's second of three (all of which ended in divorce), lasted only three years, but he remains close to Sasha and her family. Keenan even joined the Chapel of Light, a New Age spiritual center founded by Sasha's mother, who helped persuade him to join a 12-step group in 1986.

By then, Keenan had made and lost $17 million. Once again he started over. In 1988, Keenan began consulting for L.A.'s Commerce Casino, "the world's largest card club." He now has projects in Texas—pending the approval of legalized gambling—and one in Biloxi, Miss.

These days, Keenan splits his time between a country house in Biloxi, Lake Whitney and L.A., where he has several times run into Frank Sinatra Jr. at cocktail parties. "We do not speak," Keenan says. "I feel if he wanted to talk to me, he would come up and say something. I respect his space."

Richard Jerome
Bob Stewart in Lake Whitney and Leslie Berestein in Los Angeles

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