Jilly Rizzo, a colorful restaurateur and longtime associate of Frank Sinatra, was killed in an automobile accident early Wednesday, police said.
Rizzo was alone in his Jaguar on Gerald Ford Drive in Palm Desert when it was broadsided by a suspected drunk driver. Rizzo’s car exploded and he was killed instantly, said Sgt. Keith Stinson of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.
The body was burned beyond recognition but Sinatra spokeswoman Susan Reynolds confirmed that it was Rizzo and said he had been killed hours before a 75th birthday party at his house.
“They were like brothers,” Reynolds said of Rizzo and Sinatra. “They’ve known each other for more than 30 years. He was an integral part of Frank Sinatra’s life. Everybody who knew Jilly and loved him is trying to deal with this tragedy.”
Sinatra, a neighbor of Rizzo’s, was in seclusion, she added.
When deputies arrived at the accident scene near an entrance to the Mission Hills Country Club, the driver of the other car, a Mercedes-Benz, could not be found.
But police said Michelle Churis, 32, and Jeffery Perrotte, 29, later drove up in another car. Churis said she had been driving the Mercedes, Stinson said.
“But evidence at the scene and witnesses indicated Perrotte was driving the Mercedes and he was booked for investigation of vehicular manslaughter, felony drunken driving, leaving the scene of a traffic collision and driving with a suspended license,” Stinson said.
Perrotte was jailed in lieu of $25,000 bail.
Deputies also arrested Churis and booked her for investigation of being an accessory to a felony. Her bail was set at $5,000.
Rizzo was a tough-talking saloonkeeper who grew up in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York. Sinatra met him at Jilly’s on 52nd Street and the two became inseparable.
It was Sinatra who persuaded Rizzo to move to California, where he opened other restaurants.
In 1974, Rizzo was fined for committing assault and battery on an insurance executive by the same federal court jury that acquitted Sinatra of a similar charge.
In 1990, Rizzo was convicted of bank fraud, but a judge ruled he was too old and sick to go to prison.
Rizzo is survived by two sons, Willy and Joey, a daughter, Abby, and two grandchildren.