Celebrity Kidnappings: Patty Hearst, Frank Sinatra Jr, Kyoko Ono, And Others

Culture | April 20, 2019

Patty Hearst with a machine gun in 1979, and a newspaper clipping from 1963 about the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr. Source: (Bettmann/Contributor/Getty; rarenewspapers.com)

Invasion of privacy and public criticism are par for the course for a celebrity -- but kidnapping seems a bridge too far. And yet, as the stories of Patty Hearst, Frank Sinatra Jr., J. Paul Getty II, and others demonstrate, the lure of money from abducting the offspring of famous people is, evidently, tempting. All these years later the celebrity kidnappings that sold a lot of newspapers back then still fascinate us.

Why, as a society, we are so obsessed with kidnappings is a question best suited for sociologists. The subject of countless movies from Taken to Ransom, kidnappings capture people’s imaginations. News stations cover kidnappings wall to wall, even if there is little to no new information. If you combine kidnappings with celebrities, you have joined the forces of our two guiltiest obsessions as a society. What were the famous celebrity kidnappings from the '60s and '70s? Read on to find out -- you know you want to!

Patty Hearst: The Stockholm Syndrome

Patty Hearst Leaving for Federal Court. Source: (reddit.com)

Patty Hearst’s kidnapping is one of the most famous in U.S history. It polarized the country for months and popularized a now-accepted psychological phenomenon, Stockholm Syndrome, which occurs when a kidnap victim or prisoner develops a bond with their captors. On February 4, 1974, a domestic terrorist group named the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) kidnapped Hearst, a wealthy newspaper heiress, and brutalized her fiancé. The SLA then extorted money from her father to further their cause, while torturing and brainwashing young Patty. 

Does Brainwashing Really Happen?

Patricia Hearst attends the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Source: (pinterest.com)

The extremist group went on a crime spree, with Patty Hearst among them. Members were eventually caught or killed by the FBI. When Hearst was taken into custody, she denied any brainwashing and declared her actions were her own. But she was clearly a very different person than she had been before the abduction -- she was calling herself Tania, she had gaps in her memory, she was malnourished, and testing indicated her IQ had dropped 18 points. She did not even condemn her actions with the SLA at first, and only gradually came to affirm that her captors had maliciously manipulated her. In her trial the jury agreed with her, sentencing her to seven years in prison.

Stockholm syndrome, at the time, was not an accepted illness and barely even a theory. Hearst's story, even years later, elicits skepticism. When she first applied for a presidential pardon, a certain US attorney of San Francisco objected vociferously, “The attitude of Hearst has always been that she is a person above the law and that, based on her wealth and social position, she is not accountable for her conduct, despite the jury's verdict." The name of that US attorney? Robert S. Mueller III, maybe you heard of him. President Carter commuted her sentence after two years served. 

Frank Sinatra Jr.

American singer and actor Frank Sinatra with his son Frank Sinatra Jr. (Source: CBS)

Kidnapping the son of Ol' Blue Eyes, in hindsight, was incredibly stupid. They did not just kidnap the son of a man with known mafia connections. But also, Sinatra Sr. happened to be extremely well connected and a powerful man in his own right. But three foolhardy and unscrupulous men in their early twenties -- Barry Keenan, Joe Amsler, and John Irwin -- went for it anyway. They kidnapped Sinatra Jr. in Lake Tahoe in December of 1963 and smuggled him to Los Angeles. The kidnappers demanded $240,000, which the elder Sinatra paid. Irwin released Jr. ahead of schedule, rightly afraid of reprisals, and the manhunt was on. Irwin broke down and confessed his involvement in the crime to his brother, who contacted the FBI. Within hours, the FBI picked up all three men and most of the $240,000. They should consider themselves lucky that Old Blue Eyes never punched their number. 

Cindy Birdsong

The Supremes (Cindy Birdsong, Diana Ross and Mary Wilson). Source: (pinterest.com)

The talented singer who starred with Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles before hitting it big as a member of the Supremes handled her kidnapping as we all would like to imagine we would. Birdsong arrived home on December 2, 1969, with her future husband and a friend. At their door, a man attacked them with a knife, forcing Birdsong to tie up the two men before hustling her downstairs into his car. Birdsong played it cool until she could unlock her door. Then she jumped out of a moving vehicle on the freeway. Serious bravery and smart thinking saved her from a terrible ordeal. Four days later, the maintenance man of her building turned himself into police. 

Yoko Ono’s Daughter

Yoko Ono with her daughter Kyoko Chan Cox and her husband John Lennon (Source: ecosia.org)

Famous for her supposed role in the Beatles demise, Yoko Ono also endured a kidnapping saga, involving her daughter, that often goes overlooked. It is a strange story, mostly because her daughter’s father, John Cox, committed the "crime" -- although, in fact, there were abductions on both sides. The story starts with Ono and Lennon “kidnapping” her daughter, in 1971, from the island of Majorca, where Kyoko was living with her father. Ono worried that Cox, who had won sole custody of Kyoko, was minimizing Ono’s time with her daughter. After a judge ruled in Ono’s favor, forcing Cox to allow visitation, Cox made a rash decision. Fearing he would lose his daughter to John Lennon’s money and influence, Cox and his wife took Kyoko to Houston, Texas, then went into hiding for years! Until they "escaped" in 1977, the family was in a cult called the Walk (formally, the Church of the Living Word). Yoko spoke with her daughter in 1977, and received a telegram from Kyoko expressing condolences on John Lennon's death in 1980, but did not meet her in person until 1998.

The Letter Yoko Ono Wrote Kyoko

John Lennon and wife Yoko Ono and her daughter Kyoko arrive at London Airport 1969. Source: (pinterest.com)

Eventually Yoko Ono penned this open letter to her lost daughter,

Dear Kyoko,
All these years there has not been one day I have not missed you. You are always in my heart. However, I will not make any attempt to find you now as I wish to respect your privacy. I wish you all the best in the world. If you ever wish to get in touch with me, know that I love you deeply and would be very happy to hear from you. But you should not feel guilty if you choose not to reach me. You have my respect, love and support forever.
Love, Mommy

The J. Paul Getty III Kidnapping: A Sordid Family Affair

John Paul Getty III, 1978. Source: (pinterest.com)

J. Paul Getty III, the grandson, and namesake of the immensely wealthy oil baron was kidnapped by Calabrian bandits on July 10, 1973. They asked for a cool $17 million. His parents did not have anything close to that. His wealthy grandfather balked at the extortion, famously remarking, “If I pay one penny now, I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.” Months later the captors mailed Getty’s ear and a lock of his hair. Eventually, the extortion price dropped to $3 million and the eldest Getty caved to paying $2.2 million, the maximum tax-deductible amount according to his lawyers. The captive Getty’s father then borrowed the remaining $800,000 from his father at four percent interest. The captors released the earless Getty at a train station. Nine men were arrested but only two served time, due to lack of evidence. Needless to say, the Getty family fell apart at the seams after the sordid affair. 

Kidnapped For Beer Money

A portrait of Dutch businessman Alfred Henry 'Freddy' Heineken (Photo by Alexander Ryumin\TASS via Getty Images)

Alfred "Freddy" Heineken -- yes, that Heineken -- and his driver were kidnapped by three amateur criminals on Nov. 30, 1983. They demanded 35 million Dutch guilders, which at the time was roughly the equivalent of $100 million. For novices, they covered their tracks surprisingly well. They communicated with officials using code messages in the newspaper. They also continued their day jobs as if nothing happened, caring for their captives in their off time. Inevitably, police caught them through an anonymous tip and a Chinese take out order. Heineken kept his sanity over the three-week imprisonment by tidying his prison cell daily and keeping a single slice of bread in reserve. In 2011 the film De Heineken Ontvoering centered on the wild abduction.

Tags: 1960s News | 1970s News | Cindy Birdsong | Frank Sinatra | Frank Sinatra Jr. | Freddy Heineken | J. Paul Getty III | Kidnapping | Patty Hearst | Yoko Ono

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Kellar Ellsworth


Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!