It stands to reason that a yacht associated with Al Capone would be haunted.
Built in 1925, the vessel that would later be christened the “Duchess III” was originally used by the United States government to transport prisoners to McNeil Island in Puget Sound, Washington state. Shortly afterwards, missionaries conscripted the craft to spread the gospel to Alaskan coast Eskimos.
Beginning in the late 1920’s, control switched to the crime syndicate headed by Al Capone. According to Anne LaBel, who researched the background of the boat, the key word would be ‘control,’ and not ‘ownership,’ because one thing is for certain: the ship was never registered under the Chicago kingpin’s name.
Otherwise, “The IRS would have seized it,” said LaBel.
Brooklyn-born Al Capone moved to the Chicago area in 1921, just as the bootlegging industry was taking off in a big way. Capone controlled much of the liquor industry in the area, along with speakeasies and casinos. He consolidated his control of the Chicago underworld in 1929 when his crew killed seven members of the Bugs Moran gang in the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
FBI records indicate Capone built up a fearsome reputation in the ruthless gang rivalries of the period, with his hometown area of Cicero becoming “in effect, a fiefdom of the Capone mob.” Capone’s stature attracted the federal authorities, and after serving nine months in 1921 on a weapons charge in a luxurious prison cell, the Feds changed tactics.
In 1931, Capone was indicted for tax evasion.
Capone at first pled guilty, believing he would get a short sentence, but soon learned otherwise. After changing his plea and going to trial, Capone was found guilty and on November 24th, 1931 was given an 11-year prison sentence, fined $50,000 and ordered by pay $215,000 in back taxes.
LaBel suggested that the “Duchess III was in fact owned (not on paper but in reality) by Capone’s brother Frank, while it was run by Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik.
The yacht was christened, “Duchess III” from a subsequent owner—Duke Molner, a wholesale liquor distributor, naturally—who had known Frank Capone in Chicago. Molner, living at age 93 in the Los Angeles area, said he knew nothing of the boat being haunted. He finally sold it, “because I was tired of working on it,” he said.
A string of owners followed, including one couple who bought it for their honeymoon trip to Catalina in 1989, only to have it sink. They were able to retrieve the vessel, but said only after it was sold did a baffling illness being suffered by the husband finally disappear.
The Duchess III was purchased by Ventura’s Mark Frees. He did spruce the boat up some, but said: “I don’t want to dress up the boat too much: It is haunted.”
The boat, white with black trim, stirred up a lot of curiosity at Ventura Harbor. Stories abounded of lights moving below decks, icy winds swirling, spooky apparitions in mirrors, and inexplicable smells and sounds on board. “At first I thought it was hype, a promotional thing,” Frees said. But he himself has heard mysterious footsteps. And one woman who claims psychic ability reported seeing a spectral ‘angry gentleman’ named LeRoy.
Appropriately enough, the Duchess III was the setting for “Murder a La Carte,” an interactive murder mystery dinner show by the Dockside Mystery Theater while in Ventura.
Later, marine repairman Doug Finchman took ownership of the Duchess III in order to satisfy a lien. Finchman said that an explosion had destroyed half of the pilot house of the vessel—an explosion in which someone died. The damage was repaired, but the rest of the boat would have required at least $50,000 in work to restore it, said Finchman, who was ready to sell.
“Make an offer,” he said.
The final owner of the Duchess III was Las Vegas resident Saundra Reed. “I bought it on October 1st of 2005,” she said. The boat at that time had no engines and was not considered seaworthy. Reid wanted to find a home for the yacht, but financing the logistics kept proving impossible.
“It would have cost $50,000 to truck it Las Vegas,” said Reed. “And it would have cost $50,000 to equip the boat with engines to keep it in Southern California.”
So the legendary Duchess III was finally sold for salvage, ending up in Marina del Rey at the Boatyard. “Regardless of Al Capone,” Reed said of the Duchess’s importance, “That girl was around longer than I will be and now I guess she’s dead.
“It’s a shame.”
At Halloween, it’s nice to hear spooky stories about haunts here and there—and a haunted yacht is definitely different. It’s not surprising that such a vessel would be linked to Al Capone– a man who, no matter what you think of him and his legacy—knew and enjoyed some of the finest things in life.
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