Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
ACCESSORY TO MASSACRE?
No one is sure if Aurora man's 1927 Cadillac really was used by Capone's men on Valentine's Day 1929. The car certainly ain't talking.
Greg Zanis, of Aurora, owns a 1927 Cadillac that, the story goes, once cruised Chicago carrying its most notorious crime boss, a man who ordered the luxury car's involvement in the city's most infamous, unsolved crime at the very height of the Prohibition era.
By any account, it's a great yarn.
It's just that it might not be true.
According to the astounding tale, the sedan belonged to Scarface himself — Al Capone — and was used by his Tommy-gun-toting mobsters to cover the back door during the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. And, amazingly, promotional information claims that the son of Capone sold the car to Zanis.
Well, even Zanis doesn't believe the part about Capone's son.
As for the rest?
"I believe it, because of what I heard that day," Zanis said one recent afternoon, as members of the Lincoln Highway Association stopped by a refurbished garage on LaSalle Street in Aurora, where the car was on display, to eat a box lunch and have a look at the Caddy.
Zanis was talking about a day in 1967 when, as a teenager, he first saw the car — painted green and black like a 1920s Chicago police vehicle — on an estate in Highland Park.
Earlier that day, his father, Stavros Zanis, a Greek Orthodox priest, had presided over a funeral in the city.
The person being laid to rest had done something that precluded a Roman Catholic funeral mass and burial, Zanis said, and his father had agreed to officiate at the man's service. After the burial, the mourners and the priest, with his son in tow, repaired to the lakefront mansion for a luncheon.
The teenager was wandering the property when he came upon the car behind one of the estate's outbuildings. Fascinated, he went inside the main house and started asking questions. Some of the mourners, who Zanis said may have had had their lips loosened by a drink or two, revealed the car's dark history.
Al Capone himself, they said, had owned the Imperial Sedan. It had spent three decades bricked up under a garage on Dearborn Street after Capone's men had used it in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre on Feb. 14, 1929.
On that morning, seven men, most of them members of George "Bugs" Moran's gang, were lined up against a brick wall in a North Clark Street garage and were mowed down by four men, including a couple in Chicago police uniforms.
That old car out back, the mourners told Zanis, had been stationed in an alley behind the garage — a backup in case anyone escaped through the rear door. But amid public outrage over the crime and intense police pressure, the car had been hidden away.
Thirty years later, the Dearborn property was sold and the car had to be removed. It ended up in Highland Park, though the how and why of the move are not clear. But to the young Zanis, that didn't matter.
"I became obsessed with it," Zanis said.
Six years after he first saw the car, in 1973, Zanis said, he returned to the estate and knocked on the front door. An older man answered. Zanis said he pulled out a wad of cash, $1,300, and said he wanted to buy the old Cadillac. After some haggling, the old man agreed to sell. Zanis said he quizzed the man about his identity, and the man finally muttered that he was Al Capone's son.
"I don't buy that. I never did," Zanis said of the older man's paternity.
But he's convinced of the rest of the story. He said his Greek-born mother was horrified when she learned about the purchase.
"She said the car had the evil eye on it," said Zanis, a carpenter by trade who has garnered some attention around Chicago through the years for his practice of placing hand-built crosses at scenes of fatal auto accidents and other tragedies.
Since Zanis acquired the car, it has usually been parked in the garage wherever the Zanis family lived.
"I used to play in it; it was my toy," said Greg's daughter, Maria Zanis, who was decked out like a flapper to greet the Lincoln Highway group.
On a Valentine's Day about 15 years ago, Zanis was doing some work for Joan Duma, a west suburban Wayne resident who rehabs houses. While the carpenter was working and Duma was supervising, a radio played in the background, and the station's host and a guest were talking about the infamous shooting. One of them mentioned that there had been stories of a second car, parked in the alley behind the Clark Street garage.
Duma recalls Zanis piping up. "Hey, they're talking about my car!"
He told the incredulous Duma the story.
"Not only is he my carpenter, but he's nuts, too," she said, recalling her reaction. But since then, she has pieced together clues to the car's history.
The Cadillac boasts some unusual features, like armor plating, hemp-filled tires that wouldn't be flattened during a shootout and compartments in the doors, perhaps to stash pistols. There's a small hatch in the floor; Duma and Maria Zanis said roofing nails could be dropped through to blow out the tires on pursuing vehicles.
(Note to Geraldo Rivera: The car does not have a rear storage area, and the interior is stripped out. This prevented a quest for any hidden treasures in Al Capone's Trunk. Or Al Capone's Glove Box.)
Maria Zanis said she is working to have the car legitimately titled, and she hopes an appraisal will provide collateral for a bank loan to fund a complete restoration.
"The history, high-speed chase scenes and the role it played for Al Capone and his men will always be a piece of Chicago," concludes a press handout about the car.
But the question remains, is this really Big Al's Caddy? Duma admits that despite years of research and some solid clues, the car's provenance remains unsettled, though the hunt for information continues. Trying to fit another piece, she recently submitted an engine identification number to a national car organization.
"We think it's the car, and we want it to be the car, but we're still not there yet," Duma said.
Whatever its original ownership, the car is certainly rare. Fred Butalla, of Joliet, regional director for the National Cadillac and LaSalle Club, examined it about a year ago. The club knows of only one other 1927 Cadillac Imperial Sedan, he said, and a Texas man owns a 1928 model that has been tied to Capone.
So, does he think the car once belonged to Capone?
"I think that the odds of that are very good," said Butalla, who said he was convinced by the car's police car color scheme and old rumors of a bricked-up Capone car.
John Russick, senior curator of the Chicago History Museum, said he and Zanis had a discussion about the car several years ago, but the lack of a paper trail stifled serious interest from the museum over possibly acquiring it.
"We're not saying it isn't," Russick said. "There's just no evidence."
Duma said the Chicago mobsters weren't meticulous record-keepers, and that has hampered efforts to track its lineage.
"This car didn't want to be found," she said.
Russick agrees with that. Capone would not want any assets in his name for the kind of tax issues that eventually did result in his imprisonment.
"They didn't keep diaries or journals," Russick said. "They didn't keep receipts for their accountants."
Putting the car in the alley on that February morning in 1929 is more problematic, since more than eight decades later, no one has ever been held responsible for the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.
It's popular lore that Capone ordered the shooting — he and Moran were rivals and Capone's gang had the wherewithal to carry out the attack — but the matter is not settled.
For example, "Get Capone," a new book by Chicago author Jonathan Eig, posits that a vicious criminal named William "Three-Fingered Jack" White planned the massacre to avenge the killing of his cousin several months earlier by Moran gang members in a barroom shooting.
"It's a mystery yet to be solved," Russick said. "We may never know the full truth."
By Clifford Ward, Special to the Chicago Tribune
July 30, 2010