Sunday, February 16, 2003

Al Capone's Pizzeria Haunted?

Friends of ours: Al Capone

74 years ago last Friday, the infamous St. Valentine's Day massacre occurred on the north side, cementing Al Capone's legacy as a ruthless mob figure. Of course it is well-documented that Capone and his gang spent a lot of time in Willow Springs. One of those places, we learned, is now a pizzeria. By the way, before you ask, this is not another Al Capone's vault story. But it is, perhaps, another slice of mob life.

At Cavallone's West Pizzeria the bar is always packed, the pizza is piping hot. But the cold reality, according to Cavallone's owner, Rob Degen, is that this is an infamous mob hang out dating back to the 1920's. "I wonder how many times Capone hid in here," Degen asks?


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That's right Al Capone. Degen claims that this is where Al's gang spent at least some of its time. Al's picture is on the wall next to the entertainers of the day. He's seen in one picture with his lawyer.

Back in the 20's Cavallone's was called Old Henry's. It was part speakeasy, part brothel part murder and gambling. For author and tour guide Richard Crowe it's always been alluring. "Well you know you always hear stories about tunnels but when you can actually find them and see where the tunnels lead through the walls and they're caved in that's more than legend, there's actually something to that," Crowe said.

Ah yes, the tunnels. There are three in Cavallone's basement. They're boarded up now but when the ground freezes to six feet, rob believes it will be safe to explore them. "So what they would do is put ice picks in the holes and open up the wood," Degen said.

One apparently was a hiding place, another used to funnel booze to a nearby ballroom, and the third? Legend has it that one of the tunnels led to a mausoleum at a cemetery several hundred yards away. The name white was apparently one of Al Capone's pseudonyms and because the mausoleum is actually empty, it was welded shut back in the mid 1930's. "Whenever they were raided if they couldn't get to the secret room, they would run out there through the woods."

The secret room, is just behind the tunnel, you have actually walk through another door, and crouch down to get there. According to Degen, it was used to hide patrons during raids and more. "The room was mainly used to hide money, guns, and bodies if they didn't have time to dispose of them in the woods."

The Secret room is where Degen says he found a decorative, elaborate gaming table. "Take the top off, and then you take the second layer off, and then you open up the table, this is all made of nickel, we have all of the original chess pieces."

Then there are the stories of love and murder. Like the jealous boyfriend of a prostitute named Christina. "The boyfriend found out that she was having an affair with the bartender so he went downstairs and killed the bartender, then came upstairs and strangled Christina in this room."

To this day, Degen says Christina and the bartender haunt Cavallone's along with other restless souls. Which brings us back to Richard Crowe, who is also a ghost hunter. "Under test conditions we've been able to capture things that we can't readily explain," Crowe said. Like several orbs, unexplained energy sources, from a tape Crowe provided to ABC7 News. Though on the night ABC7 cameras were at Cavallone's there was no such luck. "When we have a big crowd we usually won't pick something up," Crowe said.

Even though Crowe's team of ghost hunters shot video of areas they scanned with high tech equipment, looking for otherworldly electromagnetic fields. They got just a scant reading near that gaming table. "We were getting a 3.0, but now we're getting zeroes, its like they showed up. yeah they come and they go."

This pizzeria and potential mob relic provides Degen and his wife Susette a unique vocation, though she refuses to spend the night with their 2 year old daughter in the living quarters upstairs. "Not a day goes by when I flip a switch on and think I'm either going to see something or when I flip it off something's going to grab me or something," Susette Degen said.

For those who take the tour it's an unforgettable slice of Americana. As for Rob Degen its about fun...and whatever he might find once his digs through those tunnels. "What could be in there, what could be on the other side? They never did find Al Capone's money," Degen said with a laugh.

Friday for Valentine's Day, Degen had a group of fifty in for pizza, a tour, and some ghost hunting. But he also sponsors events like séances where psychics try to summon the spirits that allegedly haunt his pizzeria.

Thanks to Rob Johnson

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