From Feb 2001, AAS
by Michael Corcoran
His date wanted to meet Frank Sinatra Jr. after a concert at California’s Pepperdine University seven years ago, so Barry Keenan brought her backstage with his sponsor’s pass. After the woman gushed about the show, Keenan echoed the sentiments and chatted with Frank Jr. for a few minutes.
There was no spark of recognition in the singer’s eyes. As he made his way down the row of well-wishers, he was unaware that he had just been talking to one of the strangers in the night who kidnapped him at gunpoint from a Lake Tahoe motel on Dec. 8, 1963.
“I didn’t think it would be appropriate to tell him who I was,” says Keenan, 60, a real estate developer who moved to the Austin area in April. “I’m pretty sure he didn’t want to be reminded of that time in his life, and I didn’t want to be reminded, either.”
That night more than 37 years ago and the following three days of captivity that dominated headlines will be hard to avoid in the coming months, however. Columbia Pictures has bought the rights to “Snatching Sinatra,” a 1998 Los Angeles New Times article that detailed the kidnapping and the subsequent convictions of Keenan and his reluctant accomplices, Joe Amsler and John Irwin.
When he’s not flying to L.A. to consult on the film, Keenan focuses on his latest mission: lobbying the Texas Legislature on issues of criminal justice reform.
“I’m going to use this next 15 minutes of fame to let people know that inmates can change,” says Keenan, whose $800 suits and gentle demeanor belie his infamous past.
Regrets, yes, he’s had a few, but none linger more than his claim that the kidnapping was a hoax to create publicity for Junior’s career. The “Jr.” appendage never weighed heavier than when it was attached to the name of Frank Sinatra, so the idea that Junior might cook up a kidnapping scheme to get attention was plausible to many.
Keenan says that was “a blatant lie” that he told during his 1964 trial in the hopes of helping his co-defendants walk free. Keenan says the Columbia film, which is scheduled to begin shooting in late 2001, barring an actor’s strike, will portray the 19-year-old Frank Jr. as a courageous and level-headed hostage.
Strung out on Percodan and alcohol, a 23-year-old Keenan thought kidnapping Junior would help bring father and son together. “I went to University High with Nancy. We were friends, and when I visited her house and her father was there, I could see how he doted over the girls. But he was distant with Frank Jr., who they sent away to boarding school.”
Keenan rationalized that the crime would make the brash and cocky “Chairman of the Board” a more sympathetic figure. “I convinced myself that I was actually doing a service for the Sinatra family, as well as for my own family, which had fallen on hard times.”
A strict Catholic at the time, Keenan says he planned to pay the ransom money back to Sinatra after making some shrewd investments. He describes having conversations with God in which he was told that the only way the sin could be forgiven was if he made restitution.
The $240,000 ransom money was left, per instructions, in a black bag between two parked school buses on Sepulveda Boulevard in Los Angeles, and Sinatra Jr. was released unharmed on the side of the road a few miles from his mother Nancy’s home in Bel-Air.
As the Sinatra family rejoiced, another celebration was happening in a Culver City, Calif., apartment. Keenan and company poured bills over their heads and rolled around on all that precious green. The trio had only three days to enjoy the loot, however. After Irwin confided in his brother, the younger sibling called the FBI. The kidnappers were then rounded up in quick order.
Retelling the story during a recent lunch at the Capitol cafeteria in Austin, where he’s been taking many of his meals these days, Keenan refers to himself as “Crazy Barry,” as if he’s talking about someone else. In his mind, he is.
“I was a nut case,” Keenan says.
Psychiatrists at the federal prison medical center in Springfield, Mo., agreed, ruling that Keenan was legally insane at the time of the crime. Based on this evaluation, Keenan had his original sentence of life plus 75 years reduced to 12. He served 4 1/2, mostly at the Lompoc federal prison in California, before being paroled in 1968.
Lompoc is considered a “country club” prison, but it wasn’t an easy time for such a high-profile offender, especially since many Ol’ Blue Eyes fans with pinky rings spent their extended vacations there.
“There were three attempts on my life by inmates who thought they might get in good with Sinatra,” Keenan says. “But I had friends watching my back. Being a kidnapper is, next to a cop killer, the highest status you can have among fellow prisoners.”
Keenan says a great support system helped him get back on his feet after he was released. He had a car and a place to live, plus Dean Torrence of Jan and Dean fame threw a benefit party that raised $5,000 for his old Malibu tennis buddy. Even though he barely escaped jail time when he naively financed the kidnapping plot to the tune of $3,000, Torrence remains one of Keenan’s best friends.
“It was a fantasy that just got out of hand. I never thought in a million years that he would pull off the kidnapping,” says Torrence, even though Keenan showed him the plans, carefully detailed in a three-ring binder. “That’s what criminals do. The Barry I knew was an intriguing fellow, but not a criminal.”
Keenan used the seed money to start Golden West Properties, a developer of apartment complexes, resorts and shopping centers. By 1983, Keenan’s real estate holdings, plus the money he made as a distributor of Sharp electronics products during the 1970s microwave boom, put his worth at $17 million.
Married to Laura Bush’s childhood friend, Sasha White, from 1980 to 1984, Keenan and his wife would often visit George W. and Laura Bush in Midland during those years. Sasha’s twin sister, Susan White, says Laura Bush, after giving birth to twins in 1981, would call the White sisters and their mother.
“Laura has known us since we were infants, and we were such mischievous twins growing up that Laura was afraid her girls would be the same way,” Susan says with a laugh.
“If George and Laura ever knew about my past, they didn’t bring it up,” says Keenan, whose financial success made his infamy a faded memory. Despite his earlier friendship with the future president and first lady, Keenan backed Ann Richards for governor in 1994.
“I knew George when he was a drinker– boy, he could slam ’em down — and he just quit one day on his own,” Keenan recalls. “He thinks everybody should be able to do that, but Ann Richards had a better understanding that addiction is a disease that should be treated, even in prison — especially in prison.”
A new set of accomplices
“While I was locked up, I saw that there was a huge disparity between the ideal of rehabilitation and what actually goes on,” Keenan says.
Although he became a success in business after his release, Keenan continued to use drugs, especially LSD, and alcohol at an increasing rate. Then, in 1975, he says he had a spiritual awakening.
“It was the first time I worked the 12 steps,” he says. “Even though I didn’t stay sober, it gave me a code of ethics. I knew I was doing things I didn’t feel good about doing, blatantly illegal things like selling drugs, so I stopped doing them. That’s how you change someone’s behavior, not by threatening them with harsh sentences.”
After going on and off the wagon so many times during the ’70s and early ’80s that it was more like a skateboard, Keenan finally went from functioning to recovering alcoholic in 1986 after a stint at the Cottonwood de Albuquerque clinic. The next year he opened a substance abuse center named Cottonwood de Austin in Bastrop County. The facility closed in 1993, Keenan says, when insurance carriers and HMOs cut back on reimbursements to substance abuse clinics.
Despite a 1985 bankruptcy during the Texas real estate bust and four divorces, Keenan says he’s had a fairly charmed existence since he walked out of Lompoc.
“But I look at all these guys who come out of prison with nothing but $50, a bus ticket and the clothes on their back. What chance do they have of going straight? What do you think they’re gonna do when that $50 is gone?”
It’s questions such as these that inspired Keenan to move to Cedar Creek, a 40-minute drive from Austin, where he plans to spend the current legislative session spreading the message of “programs over punishment” as a way to reduce the high rate of recidivism.
“More than 90 percent of the people who are currently incarcerated will one day be set free. They’ll be your neighbors. They’ll be passing you on the street,” he says. “Now, how would you prefer they spent their time behind bars? Getting help to better themselves or just getting more anti-social and vicious?”
Keenan came to the attention of Penny Rayfield, founder of the prison reform organization C-Cubed, when she read a 1998 story about him in People magazine. Accompanied by a half-page photo of him meditating, with his beloved toy collie, Gordy, at his side, the article portrayed Keenan as a reformed convict turned activist. What he lacked at the time were a set of like-minded associates.
Rayfield and ex-con David Smith asked Keenan whether he wanted to get involved in the New Directions in Corrections conference they were organizing for October 2000. “I had heard of David Smith,” Keenan says of the founder of New Directions in Corrections. “He’s a legend — the only man to ever escape from the Terminal Island (near San Pedro, Calif.) federal prison twice.”
Duly intrigued, Keenan met with Rayfield and Smith in April. “They started describing some of the ideas they had, and it was like this big light came on. I just sat there thinking, ‘I’ve been looking for an organization like this one for 32 years.’ They weren’t dwelling on the problems inherent in the system. They were talking about real common-sense solutions.”
The New Directions conference, which drew more than 250 prison officials, counselors, ex-cons and activists, made news when two state lawmakers, Sen. Ken Armbrister, D-Victoria, and Rep. Pat Haggerty, R-El Paso, said they expected the Legislature to reject money for new prisons. During the past eight years, the state has spent $1.7 billion to triple its prison population to 150,000 inmates — the nation’s highest total.
“No politician wants to come off as soft on crime,”’ Rayfield says, “but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the whole ‘lock ’em up and throw away the key’ attitude isn’t working.”
On the current agenda for C-Cubed — for Creating Conscious Community — is building support for Senate Bill 150, sponsored by Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, which calls for money to reduce the caseloads of overwhelmed parole officers.
Keenan says some of his ideas, such as a parolee care package — containing such items as a cell phone, a calling card and a credit card with a $250 limit — are often denounced as con-coddling.
“I like to think that what we’re more about is reducing the number of victims, not trying to make things easier on criminals,” says Keenan, who devotes 30 hours a week to his criminal justice reform work. “If we have to hold their hands and walk them through the steps so they don’t become repeat offenders, it’s really in society’s best interest.”
The `Son of Frank’ rule
So many years have passed, so many life-altering experiences have occurred, that Keenan says he rarely thinks of those crazed days of December 1963. Years would go by without the subject coming up. But with the Hollywood movie on the horizon — Leonardo DiCaprio is reportedly interested in playing Keenan — the kidnap is out of the bag.
The film, to be directed by Betty Thomas, is moving along as planned, but a Los Angeles court has ruled that Keenan is ineligible to receive the $467,500 he was to get in the deal. Citing California’s 1986 Victims Bill of Rights act, which prevents criminals from profiting from their crimes, Frank Sinatra Jr.’s lawyers sued in 1998 and won.
Sinatra Jr. lawyer Richard Specter of Irvine, Calif., says, “by attempting to sell the rights to the crime, (Keenan) was, in effect, trying to collect another ransom.”
In a somewhat remorseful letter to Sinatra Jr. dated July 14, 1998, Keenan writes, “My sole purpose in cooperating (with Columbia Pictures) is an attempt to set the record straight.” He adds that the money he was to receive had been earmarked for charity from the start.
Calling the law unconstitutional, Keenan’s lawyers have appealed the case to the California Supreme Court, even though Keenan has nothing to gain financially if he wins because the money will go to his charities.
“Barry’s been very tenacious about this because he believes that the government has no business deciding whether or not a man can write a book and make money from it,” says Keenan’s lawyer, Stephen Rohde. “He’s paid his debt to society.”
The legal battles have cost Keenan more than $140,000 in lawyers’ fees. “Whenever I get in someone’s way in a business deal or something, they’ll bring up the kidnapping to try to discredit me. I’ve literally lost millions,” Keenan says, pointing to a $3 billion Mississippi casino resort project that stalled soon after the Los Angeles Times printed an article that accused the studio of “shoving aside common sense and ethics to buy Mr. Keenan’s version.”
The piece was reprinted all over the country, Keenan says, holding up a Dallas Morning News headline reading, “Kidnapper targets Sinatra Jr. again by selling story.”
“If I could take back any decision in my life, it would be the interview with (L.A.) New Times,” he says, adding that the alternative weekly and Torrence will each receive nearly one-third have already received a chunk of the $1.5 million film rights, while Keenan has gotten nothing but headaches. (Amsler wants nothing to do with Keenan or the movie; Irwin died several years ago.) “I just wanted to tell the truth, once and for all, that it wasn’t a publicity stunt. Because I tried to do right by Frank Sinatra Jr., I’ve got his lawyers trying to ruin my life.”
In the L.A. Times piece, Specter questioned Keenan’s pledge to donate the movie money to charity. “History shows that he’s not of that moral character to start with,” Specter told reporter James Bates.
But some of those who have associated with Keenan in recent years see a different man. “Barry is a major pain in the neck, but I mean that in the most positive way,” says Barrientos aide Rachele Smith. “He’s so committed to the cause that he’ll bombard you with more information than you could possibly digest. He’s relentless.”
That determination seems to have carried over from his business demeanor. “When he gets his teeth into a project, there’s no one who’ll work harder to see it through,” says Torrence, who is on board with Keenan to develop the “Surf City” casino resort in Biloxi.
As a convicted felon, Keenan can’t own a gaming establishment, but if he finds enough investors to pony up $40 million, he says he stands to make $15 million to $18 million as the builder. Still, he considers his status as “semi-retired,” at least until the legislative session ends in May.
Resigned to the fact that he’ll always be an infamous pop culture footnote, Keenan says his notoriety could be an advantage in his role as an activist for criminal justice reform. “I’ll be knocking on doors down at the Capitol for the next few months, talking to as many legislators and their chiefs of staff as possible,” he says. “If I get a meeting just because someone wants to meet the crazy dude who kidnapped Frank Sinatra’s kid, that’s fine. As long as they hear what I have to say.”