South Bay Yesterday: Imperial Beach woke up on the morning of Dec. 13, 1963, to find police cars and the FBI at the Florida Street home of J. R. “Bob” Irwin. They were there to arrest Bob’s brother, John Irwin, for the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra, Jr., the 19-year old son of famed crooner Frank Sinatra.
“Junior” had been performing at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe when he was taken captive by two men, held for two days until his father paid a ransom of $240,000. John Irwin did not participate in the kidnapping, but his job was to guard Junior while he was held captive in Canoga Park and to make the telephone calls to Frank Sinatra to get the ransom (during these calls made back and forth at pay booths, Frank ran out of dimes and thought his son would be killed; for the rest of his life, he always carried a roll of dimes in his pocket).
After the ransom was paid, John began having doubts and drove to his brother’s house in Imperial Beach for advice. They talked all night on Thursday, Dec. 12, and Bob persuaded his brother to call the FBI and give up. The arrest Friday morning made national headlines and thrust the small town of IB into the middle of the story and the trial.
Week after week, the details of the kidnapping gripped the nation. The defense made the sensational claim that Junior caused his own kidnapping for publicity purposes. Another rumor was that Frank Sinatra himself arranged the kidnapping to boost his son’s career (this rumor inspired a TV episode on Hawaii Five-O in 1968 with Sal Mineo playing the role of a young kidnapped singer). The rock duo of Jan and Dean were implicated when it was revealed the kidnapper’s leader, Barry Keenan, gave Dean Torrence a paper bag with $25,000 of the ransom money to pay off a debt.
The Florida Street today looks more peaceful that it was in 1963. The brown Irwin house is on the right in this photo:
John Irwin and the two kidnappers were convicted and given life sentences, but after several appeals and retrials, they only served a couple years and were released.
Keenan helped Showtime make a TV movie in 2003 about the kidnapping called “Stealing Sinatra” with William Macy playing the role of John Irwin. John’s brother Bob was upset with the negative image created of his community.
He told the local Star-News in an exclusive interview, “What worries me most about the whole thing is the publicity it’s bringing to Imperial Beach. Here we have a wonderful new fishing pier, and the newspapers talk only about this. I don’t want to be pointed out on the street the rest of my life as the man who called the FBI on the Sinatra case.”
He had only good things to say about his neighbors. “They’ve comforted us and offered to help in any way they could to take care of our children and even invite us to move into their homes if we wanted to get away from the newspapermen. You know, we bought our house in Imperial Beach in 1958, and decided to retire here, because this seemed like such a nice and peaceful and quiet community and because we thought the people here would be friendly and cooperative. Well, we now know that this is the case. And we thank God for it.”
About the Author: Steve Schoenherr is Professor Emeritus of SDSU and Co-Founder of the South Bay Historical Society. His is author and co-author of several books, including Bonita and Chula Vista Centennial.