The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults

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Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Jules Rubin grew up in the 1970s as an only child raised by a single father. His dad, Harold, was an entrepreneur.

Speaker 2: Well, he was the porn king of Chicago. So I guess maybe that makes me the porn prince of Chicago. I don’t know.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Harold Rubin owned a combination adult bookstore, massage parlor and nude modeling studio. He got the name for it from a woman he’d taken to a costume party. He’d showed up at her apartment carrying a medieval shield with nothing underneath.


Speaker 2: She said, You’re weird, Harold. Apparently, that’s how he got the nickname and it stuck.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Weird Harold. The person was sex crazed and shameless. Weird Harold. The business was a porno superstore. As a five year old. Jules rode his tricycle up and down the hallway.

Speaker 2: So you’d walk in. And then as you turned to your left, you would notice the church confessional. And that’s where the register was.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Weird. Harold thrived on attention, though he mostly attracted the negative kind. Newspapers called him a scummy pervert, a loathsome smut peddler in Chicago’s leading creep. He also had more than 30 arrests on his record for stuff like selling obscene material and running a house of prostitution.


Speaker 2: It was raided so many times. He always knew it was coming. Whenever the raid would come, I would spend the night at the babysitter’s house.


Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The porn king of Chicago reigned for just five years. In 1975, weird. Harold’s landlord canceled the store’s lease. Harold Reuben gave up his business, moved to the suburbs and focused on a different obsession antiques. He didn’t make his best finds at second hand stores or rummage sales. He preferred to do his digging in places he wasn’t supposed to be. Empty offices, an old optometrist clinic, even a medical repository.

Speaker 2: You walk in and there are shelves upon shelves of ox eyeballs in formaldehyde, pig fetuses, lamb, kidneys, you name it.


Josh Levin, Josh Levine: When he went on these adventures, Harold Reuben brought along his son as an extra set of hands.

Speaker 2: It was just come on for Lavon. Then we’d be at an abandoned building, and he’d be finding a way in.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: One day in the early 1980s, when Jules was around 11, his dad drove him to a decrepit looking block on Chicago’s Near South Side. Their target that day was an old hotel.

Speaker 2: The front doors were boarded and chained. You had to push them open and squeeze through. And that’s how you got in.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The building they snuck into had opened in the 19th century. Back then it was called the Lexington.


Speaker 2: The downstairs was a very grandiose, you know, they had a grand ballroom with a mezzanine and chandeliers. And at one time, it was a very nice place, that’s for sure.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: And what did it look like by the time you started going there?

Speaker 2: So when you walked in, there was this huge god. It had to have been 20 feet across a hole in the ceiling. I mean, there’s no electricity. You got a flashlight at best. Every I mean, it is Chicago. There’s rats. You hear things and that gives you the cookies.


Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Jules and his father moved from floor to floor, taking inventory just like they’d done in so many other abandoned spaces.


Speaker 2: To me, the hotel was just another building, and I think for him it was just another building until he found out that it wasn’t. And once he realized that history’s crime boss stayed here, that just lit the fire.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The crime boss who stayed at the Lexington was the notorious Al Capone. Harold Rubin had stumbled into the former headquarters of a criminal icon. When he discovered that, he began to wonder what treasures had America’s most fabled gangster hidden away.

Speaker 2: You’re talking about a place that housed Al Capone on a regular basis, so it’s got to be something down there.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: He wouldn’t be the only one who thought there were secrets stashed inside the Lexington Hotel. In 1986, a TV special would fuel a nationwide frenzy over Al Capone and the bounty he may have left behind.


Speaker 3: I’d never seen reality television like this unfolding as we all watched it together.

Speaker 4: We didn’t know if we would find bodies. We didn’t know if we will find tunnels. We didn’t know if we were going to find riches.

Speaker 2: You find the map with the X on it. You want to know what’s under that x?

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: In this week’s episode, an abandoned building in Chicago becomes the center of the entertainment universe and the site of a legendary American fiasco. This is one year, 1986. The mystery of Al Capone’s vaults.

Tim Samuelson: This office is just it’s like Pee wee’s Playhouse, except for a historian.


Josh Levin, Josh Levine: And we’re in a converted auto parts factory southwest of downtown Chicago. It’s now full of offices and artists studios.

Tim Samuelson: A lot of these are old architectural plans and drawings. And so here we’ve got of various historical properties.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: And this office belongs to a man who’s been conserving pieces of his hometown since he was in elementary school.

Tim Samuelson: My name is Tim Samuelson, and I was a preservation specialist with the Chicago Commission on God Dammit, right where I worked.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Tim worked at the Commission on Chicago Landmarks back in the 1980s. Later, he became the city’s first official cultural historian. He has a personal collection of around 25,000 artifacts, a lot of which are on display right here.


Tim Samuelson: Well, this is an old record player. The sound goes through this hollow tube. It gets bigger and bigger and makes this giant horn. And it’s all run by spring power.

Geraldo Rivera: Right.

Tim Samuelson: And that’s the kind of thing that Al Capone might listen to for entertainment up in his room in the Lexington Hotels, probably about the right date.

Speaker 7: Help me find my title.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Alphonse Capone was born in Brooklyn in 1899, one of nine children of Italian immigrant parents. Legend has it that he left school for good in the sixth grade after punching his teacher in the face. As a teenager, he fell in with some low level gangsters and got slashed outside a saloon. The injury that made him Scarface, he set off for Chicago at the dawn of the Prohibition era. That’s when he leveled up from a small time hood to a criminal mastermind.


Tim Samuelson: The main part of what Al Capone is known for was running the networks of illegal liquor, pulling everyone together to be able to manufacture, transport, deliver liquor throughout the city without interruption.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Capone’s organization eventually branched out into gambling and prostitution. They ruled the streets with bloody efficiency.

Geraldo Rivera: Al Capone enters Chicago court at height of his career and leaves still king of bootleggers. His reign of terror still do take its toll of dead in an underworld at war.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: He was conniving, dangerous, an enemy of the state. But in the eyes of the public, he wasn’t necessarily a villain.

Tim Samuelson: He was almost like a folklore figure, in a way, with the same kind of mythology that you hear from real people in the West. Jesse James Although everybody knew he was behind horrific things of murder or extortion. Many people had a kind of warm feeling to him, like you would for some kind of mythical fictional hero.


Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Capone was richer than anyone could fathom. One estimate pegs his net worth at $40 million nearly $700 million today. He wanted the world to see that wealth. Spending big on diamond jewelry, silk suits and a bulletproof Cadillac.

Geraldo Rivera: The entire car throughout his steel line. The glass on the windshield is one inch and a quarter thick.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: All the while, Capone presented himself as a man of the people. He ran a soup kitchen for the needy and lived in a modest, two flat apartment building on the South Side. His headquarters was seven miles away at the Lexington Hotel on Michigan Avenue in what’s now called Sir Mack Room.

Geraldo Rivera: All right, so what are we seeing here?


Tim Samuelson: Okay, so now we are at a mouth of an alley that originally served the Lexington Hotel.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Tim took us over to Michigan and Siamak and told us what the Lexington looked like when it was first built.

Tim Samuelson: Up ten storey 1890s building. It was really dignified when it was new reddish terracotta in ornamental designs. It had bay windows that stuck out around the corner turret.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: But by the prohibition years, it had lost a lot of its luster.

Tim Samuelson: This would not have been a great, glamorous area. The old houses had been torn down by the 1920s and was replaced by factory buildings, and this became row upon row of automobile showrooms.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The Lexington Hotel became an inexpensive stop for traveling salesman and cross-country truckers. It was the perfect out of the way spot for Chicago’s most infamous gangster. Capone made himself at home at the Lexington, installing a gymnasium and building out a master suite with a lavender bathtub and a gilded toilet. He’d supposedly sit at a bay window watching his fleet of beer trucks roll past. Even if he didn’t technically own the place. The hotel was his room, but that wouldn’t last.

Geraldo Rivera: Al Capone goes to jail. The federal government strikes his first telling blow at the underworld by convicting public enemy number one on income tax fraud.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Capone went to prison in 1932, eventually ending up on Alcatraz Island. He got released after seven years when he was diagnosed with syphilis of the brain. Capone died in 1947 in Miami Beach. He was 48 years old.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: In Chicago, the Lexington Hotel continued its own decline. Capone’s former stomping grounds became a 400 room brothel, then a flop house in 1980. The gas and electricity got shut off for non-payment, and a judge evicted the last 150 tenants.


Tim Samuelson: You often wonder what would happen in an apocalypse. And that was a museum of their at the Lexington Hotel. Leaky roofs will soak the interior. The paint and plaster would be hanging from the ceiling, just like stalactites if you were in a cave.

Speaker 2: At first it was creepy, but there was just something about the Lexington.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: For Jules Reuben’s dad. Weird Harold. The Lexington’s decline wasn’t a tragedy. It was an opportunity.

Speaker 2: I just remember that everything kind of shifted at one point, and then that’s when we really started removing stuff from that hotel in the bathroom. The walls were all pink tile. All of the tile came out of there. All of it. The whole lobby was covered in Italian marble. It was on the floors. It was on the walls. We spent a lot of time breaking that up.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: How was it removed?

Speaker 2: Sledge, sledgehammer, crowbars and just sheer human will.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: And where would he put all this stuff?

Speaker 2: Like all of the marble was in our backyard in suburban Chicago, stacked up on the side of the house, just in piles and piles.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Harold Rubin planned to sell those hunks of marble as authentic relics, but he wasn’t going to stop there. He thought the building’s most fascinating secret was still waiting to get unearthed. There was a part of the building he hadn’t explored yet. The basement, the stairs leading down to it had fallen away.

Speaker 2: He actually attempted to get me to. To go down there. I just I wouldn’t there was no light and I was not jumping into the dark. One of the one of the few times I defied my father, I was not going down. And that group’s face lit.


Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Harold Rubin was not afraid. He lowered himself into that creepy ass basement. And what he found there was tantalizing. A concrete wall about 125 feet long. It seemed like that wall had no functional purpose. So why was it there? Weird. Harold realized there was something on the other side of all that concrete. It was some kind of chamber. A space big enough to fit almost anything. That was it. He was obsessed. He had to know what was buried inside.

Speaker 2: And the more research he did, the more excited he got about it. Honest to God, he figured they were going to find bodies, skeletons.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Whatever was in there. Harold was determined to be the guy who uncovered it.

Speaker 2: The easiest way through it was with explosives.

Geraldo Rivera: Blow that wall up, both gone.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: All of Harold scavenging had led up to this one moment. He was going to get behind that wall and discover what Al Capone was hiding.

Speaker 2: This was the thing. It was going to happen.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: But then, in an instant, his scheme imploded.

Speaker 8: As a foundation, as a not for profit. I’m just hoping we don’t find any bodies.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The Lexington Hotel had been bought. The new owner was a group called the Sun Bo Foundation. It was led by Pat Porter, who ran one of the only woman owned construction companies in the United States. She thought the Lexington was the perfect training ground, a place where hundreds of new workers could learn demolition and wiring. As they rehabbed the building. She got the entire hotel for just $500,000 and Harold Rubin got shut out.


Speaker 2: He was mad. He was so mad that this group had bought this building and locked it down tighter than a drum.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: On the surface, Pat Porter seemed like the exact opposite of Harold Rubin. She was a feminist and a friend of City Hall. He was a chauvinist and a municipal pariah. But they were both shrewd business people and great at getting publicity. And they both understood that the Lexington Hotel was a potential gold mine.

Geraldo Rivera: Chicago’s legendary gangster Al Capone has been dead for almost 40 years now. But he’s back in the news today because of something he may have left behind in 1985.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Pat Porter put on a hard hat and led a group of reporters down to that creepy ass basement. She told them an irresistible story about Al Capone and a whole huge complex of hidden staircases and underground tunnels. But the main attraction was that enormous concrete mystery box. Harold Rubin had thought it was full of bodies. Pat Porter had another idea.

Speaker 8: Ever since I walked into this building, the first time I’ve known I’m going to find something, my instinct is telling me that there’s money.

Speaker 9: So, Josh, it looks like you’re in your closet.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: I am. You know.

Geraldo Rivera: That’s all right.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Doug Llewellyn knows how to look good on screen. In the 1980s, he had the best hair on daytime television. One reporter called it a hairdo you could surf on. He also had an all time classic TV catchphrase.

Speaker 9: If you’re involved in a dispute with another party such as this and you just can’t seem to work it out, don’t resort to taking the law into your own hands. You take them to court. The People’s Court was still on the air. Right now, it’s in its 38th year, believe it or not.


Josh Levin, Josh Levine: As the reporter on the People’s Court, he helped transform rinky dink disputes into TV drama. But that wasn’t his only job. He ran a television production company on the side, and he was always on the lookout for his next big project.

Speaker 9: My partner and I were sitting in our office in Los Angeles one morning. We were going through the newspaper and there was an article talking about vaults belonging to Al Capone, supposedly had been discovered in Chicago. And my partner and I decided, let’s look into this.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: That article said one person controlled access to Capone’s former headquarters. Pat Porter of the Sun Bowl Foundation.

Speaker 9: We approached her and said we would like to explore to see if there really was something there. And I arranged to meet her. She showed me around the building. And the more she talked about it, the more sense it made that there could be material that Capone’s and his men left in their could be money, could be bodies, could be guns, could be whatever. It sounded logical.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Doug Llewellyn and his business partner made an agreement with Porter. They would try to sell a TV special about busting into Al Capone’s secret stash. If they got a deal, they’d give the Son Beau Foundation a chunk of the broadcast proceeds.

Speaker 9: So we put together a dynamite presentation reel all about Prohibition era, you know, Chicago in the 1930s when Capone was there. And the magic of what a show like that could be like.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Well, it was feeling good when he took a sizzle reel to New York and made his pitch to ABC and NBC. Both networks were intrigued at first. But they got hung up on the same question. How could they know for certain that there was something exciting inside that chamber in the Lexington Hotel? The truth was that they couldn’t. No, that wasn’t what the networks wanted to hear.


Speaker 9: We couldn’t get anybody interested. For some reason or other, it just didn’t fly.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: So it looked like Al Capone secrets wouldn’t get laid bare on national television.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: But then Llewellyn heard about one more potential buyer.

Speaker 9: Someone did mention to us about a new company that had started in Chicago called Tribune Entertainment.

Speaker 4: At the time, it was essentially a start up within a very large media company. The large media company being Tribune Broadcasting.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Alan Grafman joined Tribune Entertainment in 1983 as director of business affairs. He was left with a big task.

Speaker 4: To create, develop, produce and distribute television programming that our stations could play and also that we could make money.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: He was looking for something big and splashy. At the time, the crown jewel in Tribune Entertainment’s portfolio was the least sexy show on television. The U.S. Farm Report.

Geraldo Rivera: Yes, that’s our annual tuxedo show, because last Saturday night we were at Bismarck, North Dakota, where the nation’s four outstanding young farmers were named.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Back in L.A., Doug Llewellyn got a tip that Tribune was hungry for a new idea.

Speaker 9: And they said, You guys got to pitch this to the people in Chicago. So we did exactly that. We went in and gave them our dog and pony show and boy, they went for it.

Speaker 4: This was better than anything we had. What was in the basement behind this wall of concrete and the potential that there might be something really interesting just lit my imagination.

Speaker 9: They said, this is you know, it’s a Chicago story. This will be sheer magic. And we decided if we could do this, we would have to blast the vaults open and do it on live television.


Speaker 4: You know, a tape show. It would have been a history of Al Capone in Chicago. This was the mystery of Al Capone’s vault. What’s in there, ladies and gentlemen?

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Tribune Entertainment agreed to finance a two hour TV special. They paid Doug Lou Allen’s company $900,000. Pat Porter and the women of the son Beau Foundation got $50,000 and 1% of the royalties. Since the big broadcast networks had rejected the special. The mystery of Al Capone’s vaults would be televised in syndication. That meant Tribune Entertainment would sell the show to local stations all over the country. It was up to Doug Llewellyn to make sure they had something to sell.

Speaker 9: We went back and forth to Chicago probably 15 times from Los Angeles doing research. There was just so much work to be done.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The mystery of Al Capone’s vaults wouldn’t just be a live excavation. There would also be documentary segments on the history of gangland Chicago. The producers sat down with people who knew Capone, journalists who covered him, and experts like Tim Samuelson.

Tim Samuelson: It was a normal day at the Landmark Commission office, and I get a telephone call from a production company.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Tim’s job at the Commission on Chicago Landmarks didn’t typically involve consulting on flashy TV specials, but he was happy to help so long as he could remain honest to his profession.

Tim Samuelson: I have to tell the truth. The historian’s not going to make things up. Some of them do, but I try not to.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Tim knew everything there was to know about the Lexington. So he gave tours to the producers and anyone else who needed a guide.


Tim Samuelson: One time they made an appointment and they didn’t tell me what it was. And so I dutifully went down there. And who is there? But the famous psychic, Irene Hughes.

Geraldo Rivera: In Chicago. Psychic Irene Hughes has received commendations from police for her efforts in helping them solve no less than 15 murder cases.

Tim Samuelson: So we go wandering through the building and there was this round hole, like a manhole cover in the basement floor. And she said, there is something of Capone underneath there. And I said, Well, Ms.. Hughes. That is the cover for the sewage ejector. If anything of Capone survives down there. You want to steer clear of that?

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Another time. The producers asked him to hurry over because they discovered a torture chamber.

Tim Samuelson: In the torture chamber? This is the electrical closet. This is where the fuse boxes were. Oh, come on, folks.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Tim thought the psychic and the torture chamber were harmless diversions, but he did see a more fundamental problem with the mystery of Al Capone’s vaults.

Tim Samuelson: It wasn’t like those vaults were a complete mystery. In Chicago, it was very common. When you were building a building, you would build a space for storage or delivery of coal under the public sidewalk.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: That storage space was known as the Chicago Sidewalk Vault. Tim felt certain that was the kind of vaults in the basement of the Lexington.

Tim Samuelson: The thing about a sidewalk vault is it can be a bit of a problem over time if it’s not well maintained. These sidewalk vaults would start to leak.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: When that happened, workers would typically cave in the vaults and fill them with whatever they could find.


Tim Samuelson: Slag that comes from the old steel mills. Dirt, construction, rubble from a demolition site. So now the sidewalk vault is gone.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: In other words, in old Chicago, sidewalk vaults wasn’t like a bank vaults. It was more like a garbage dump.

Tim Samuelson: And I even tried to tell them, but, well, they didn’t listen to me.

Speaker 9: You know, he was one opinion. They were. I’ll tell you what, we brought in very high, high class X-ray equipment to try and penetrate through the walls to see if we could find anything.

Speaker 4: It wasn’t conclusive. We knew that. We don’t see anything that we’d like to see. But who knows what’s beyond or what’s behind what we do see.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The production team figured they’d done all the pre-show exploration they could do, but they still had one big thing to sort out.

Speaker 4: If we’re going to do it live, you need a host, someone to pull it together.

Speaker 9: We knew we need somebody who could walk and talk without a written script.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: As luck would have it, a guy with just that skill had recently become available.

Speaker 7: And now the anchorman of Good Night America, rather.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Geraldo Rivera had a reputation for taking on stories that other reporters wouldn’t touch. In the mid 1970s, he broadcast the uncut Zapruder film of JFK, his assassination. Later, as a correspondent for ABC’s 2020, he did the first network news report on the AIDS crisis.

Geraldo Rivera: The story of the birth and malignant spread of the killer disease may seem like a scenario from some horror movie, but this is real life.


Speaker 9: We said, you know, Harold would be great to do the show. He’s a reporter and he knows how to dig for a story.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: And most importantly, he was out of work in the fall of 1985. Heraldo had gotten into a big fight with his bosses at ABC. He publicly accused them of burying a story about Marilyn Monroe’s alleged affairs with the Kennedy brothers.

Geraldo Rivera: Make a long story short, I got fired. That was the most famous unemployed person in America.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: That’s Heraldo from an interview in 2011.

Geraldo Rivera: I was so hurt. And so, in a way, embarrassed. I didn’t want to go looking for a job. So I decided to sail my boat around the world.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: As he got his boat ready. He was in contention for one job. He’d applied to be the first journalist in space, an offshoot of NASA’s Teacher in Space program. But that astronaut deal was looking unlikely. In the early days of 1986, Geraldo had just lost his seven figure salary and needed some quick cash. So when Doug Llewellyn got his phone number, he answered the call.

Speaker 9: And I spent about an hour and a half on the phone with him. And by the time we finished that telephone conversation, he had agreed to do the show.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Her Aldo’s fee was $50,000, the annual cost of maintaining his sailboat. As soon as he signed the deal, he disappeared onto that boat for more than a month. When he finally made it to Chicago in March of 1986. There were five weeks until the show went on the air. Geraldo cut his hair, trimmed his mustache, and got to work hyping the project.


Geraldo Rivera: Scarface Al Capone may have built and nobody knows what’s in it. Some say money. Some say bought it. Some say it’s booby trapped. And we’re going to open it.

Speaker 3: So we were really, really baiting the audience early on.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Johnny Bey Hack was the publicist for The Mystery of Al Capone’s vaults.

Speaker 3: And it was my dream assignment. I remember before the broadcast actually aired, I was having dinner with a friend at a mexican restaurant, and everybody was talking about where they were going to be to watch the show. And that’s sort of when I knew that it was on everybody’s mind.

Geraldo Rivera: When there are TV production crews here. There are federal tax agents. There may even be a few ghosts here waiting to see what happens when they crack that safe.

Speaker 3: And it kind of was such a unifying experience when people said, what do you think’s in it? What do you think? I think it was just the suspense of it all was so exciting.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: There was a lot riding on that vault in the Lexington Hotel for Heraldo. This was his chance for a big comeback to prove that he was still a star and to show his old bosses at ABC that firing him had been a huge mistake.

Speaker 3: So he had a lot of skin in the game with this broadcast, and he knew it was a risk.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Tribune Entertainment’s Alan Graffman was feeling the pressure, too.

Speaker 4: Tension mounted day by day. I don’t know how else to say it. We had a million bucks in the project. We had sold it to 180 stations, sold it internationally to 20 countries.


Josh Levin, Josh Levine: How much experience did you have with live television?

Speaker 4: None.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Well, there there clearly in great hands.

Speaker 4: But not to worry, it’s only in prime time around the world.

Speaker 4: I can tell you I was afterwards. I could tell you where I was the days and weeks before. But that day is a flippin blur.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: On Monday, April 21st, 1986, Allen Grafman was at the Lexington Hotel worrying about logistics.

Speaker 4: Are the satellite trucks in place? Is Harold prepped? Crowd control? Is our script done?

Speaker 3: I remember going out and then seeing all these different reporters from all over the world.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Publicist Joanie Bay back saw camera crews from as far away as Europe and Asia. And it wasn’t just journalists who wanted to be close to the action.

Speaker 3: A mr. T was there with a t shirt and a weird hat and all these gold chains. It was so cool and I was right in the middle of it.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Joanie took a photo that night of Mr. T standing in a crowd waiting around to see what was going to happen. There’s a guy behind him holding up a commemorative shirt. It says, I was there April 21st, 1986. Al Capone Vault Open.

Tim Samuelson: The crew of the show were all sneaking out to buy these t shirts. I bought one myself.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Historian Tim Samuelson was standing by at the Lexington just in case the production team needed his expertise. 25 blocks away, producer Doug Llewellyn was mingling with the crowd at an Al Capone Safecracking party.

Geraldo Rivera: Everybody having a good time here. I think they’re having a grand time.


Speaker 9: We were all gung ho. We were confident that what we had to show the audience was really great.

Speaker 3: Come to the chicken expert, because when it comes to.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Finally at 7 p.m. Central, it was time to make television history.

Speaker 4: The lights are working, the mikes working. The satellite is working.

Speaker 4: Live from Chicago.

Geraldo Rivera: I’m Geraldo Rivera and you are about to witness a live television event. A massive concrete vault has been discovered. Some think it belong to none other than the notorious Al Capone. Well, tonight, for the first time, that vault is going to be open live.

Speaker 9: We had cameras and helicopters. The show opened with a helicopter landing right in the middle of Michigan Avenue and Samak, which is where the hotel was. It was an exciting, exciting evening in Chicago.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: After that helicopter landed, Heraldo strolled inside the Lexington and headed downstairs to show the audience around.

Geraldo Rivera: There are also these hidden staircases. You can see them now only because we have torn the wall away. There’s another one over here. Check it out.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Her, although said the mystery of Al Capone’s vaults was still a mystery to him, too.

Geraldo Rivera: Now, what, if anything, that ball contains. We don’t know. This is an adventure you and I are going to be taking together.

Tim Samuelson: I was stationed on the first floor and there’s a feed. They were broadcasting the actual live show.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Tim Samuelson felt certain that there wasn’t any buried treasure in that basement. He was about to find out if he was right.


Tim Samuelson: I’m sitting and watching the monitor. They’re going to drop the first section of wall.

Geraldo Rivera: Now we are ready to tear this massive slab away. We’re going to do it with the help of a miniature bulldozer. Believe it or not, we’ve lowered one into the basement.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: This was just phase one of a multi-part construction project. After a short commercial break, the mini bulldozer was ready to roll.

Geraldo Rivera: Okay, without further ado, let’s take the wall down. Let’s go. Break it down.

Tim Samuelson: Let’s go in the drop the wall. You could feel the building shake. And then it shows Heraldo going to the newly opened wall in here. You can see here’s the rubble I thought would be there.

Geraldo Rivera: Okay. So now it’s like we figured this fill in the in the beginning areas. It’s got other you know, it’s twenties junk definitely 20th job.

Tim Samuelson: In there’s two little bottles that were tumbled right out. And Heraldo picks up these two little bottles and says, We found some old stuff already.

Geraldo Rivera: I hope it’s a prohibition. Dennis Capone’s death update.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Now to viewers at home, these dusty bottles look like a promising start. It wasn’t even 730 yet. There were still more than 90 minutes left to go.

Tim Samuelson: Well, then I get called from upstairs. Tim. Tim. You know old bottles, don’t you? Well, yeah. Come down here. So now I’m in the basement at the scene of action. And here were two little bottles dated 1948.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: 1948 was six years after Al Capone moved out of the Lexington Hotel and one year after he died. Those bottles were trash. Not prohibition era treasure.


Tim Samuelson: I said, I am sorry, fellas.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: But remember, this was just phase one. There was still so much more of the Lexington to explore the more than 90 minutes left to find the real bounty. Down in the basement, Giraldo was relentlessly upbeat.

Geraldo Rivera: Our tests indicate that this is a very, very deep chamber. So don’t expect to see gold bars right out front. It’s probably not going to work that way.

Speaker 3: Hirata was the perfect guy to do it because he had the gravitas. He had the, you know, the melodrama in his personality.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Joni Bey has worked alongside her, although before and during the broadcast.

Speaker 3: He added color to every part of the documentary and every part of the stringing along the viewer to what’s inside. What’s inside?

Speaker 2: In my opinion, he butchered the whole thing.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Jewels Ruben and his dad, Harold, weren’t at the Lexington that night. They were watching with the crowd at the Al Capone Safecracking Party hosted by Doug Llewellyn.

Speaker 2: I can remember being there and it was all glitzy and, you know, gangster up.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Llewellyn had met with Weird Harold in the months leading up to the live broadcast, but the Lexington Hotel’s leading scavenger didn’t make the cut.

Speaker 2: I remember that, making me a little bit twisted out of shape. And yeah, they never really even acknowledged that he had anything to do with it. But yet they invited us to the party.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: With his dad cut out of the show. Jules didn’t think much of her Aldo’s take on gangland history, and his opinion sunk even lower when a pre-recorded segment started to play.


Speaker 2: I can remember watching Heraldo Rivera as he’s going through the gymnasium.

Geraldo Rivera: This big second floor room, and the Lexington Hotel was basically the first gymnasium, and it also had a more sinister purpose. This was the target practice range for Capone and the boys.

Speaker 2: And I thought to myself, No, no, they didn’t shoot the Tommy guns in the gym. They just didn’t have it.

Geraldo Rivera: And during that time, what better weapon to hit what you were aiming at than this one, the Thompson submachine gun?

Speaker 3: And he said the mob called it the typewriter, but we all knew what a bloody tale of terror.

Geraldo Rivera: If the colt was the weapon that won the West. They say this was the weapon that made the.

Speaker 3: Tar that’s so Geraldo.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Her. Although didn’t just want to talk about Tommy guns. He wanted to fire them on camera.

Geraldo Rivera: I’ve shot most modern weapons. I haven’t used this one yet. Is it difficult to fire? No, it’s a very easy weapon. The fire, it has very little rise. It is extremely accurate and it’s very comfortable to shoot.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The guy Giraldo was chatting with was a Chicago gun shop owner named Sherwin Turnoff.

Geraldo Rivera: I was the special effects and weapons master and I supplied a lot of the things that they needed.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: When they were getting ready to tape the gymnasium scene. Sherwin loaded a vintage Tommy gun with 50 rounds of blanks. Heraldo told him that wasn’t going to work.

Geraldo Rivera: He said, This is a docu drama. We have to use real bullets. I said, It’s too dangerous. I shoot 50 rounds, a machine gun bullets hit that wall. You’re going to have bullets bouncing back all over the room. So he insisted. Now, at one point, I want to make it very clearly right now. This is live ammunition. It’s not like the cop shows you see on TV. This is the real stuff. 45 caliber pot ammunition.


Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Sherwin loaded the Tommy gun with low capacity bullets with a very soft heads. But he regrets doing even that, especially given what Heraldo did next.

Geraldo Rivera: I said, don’t move till the gun stops firing. Stay right in this square that I have marked out on the floor. So I just watch my burst and aim, by the way, that you were going. He started firing and about, I would say, a few seconds into the firing. He decides to run with the gun firing towards the wall. We took about four steps and thank God he ran out of ammo. Unbelievably reckless.

Speaker 9: Well, although he loved doing that. That was really great. And it worked.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The live broadcast was going pretty much as planned. The bulldozer was digging. The tape segments were rolling and the crowd at that Safecracking party was watching with rapt attention.

Speaker 4: And then, has the evening progressed? The elation slowly gave way to tension as to how is this going to end.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Phase one of the excavation hadn’t revealed anything but those old bottles in a vintage sign for the Adams Express Company. Now, with about an hour left in the special, it was time for phase two.

Geraldo Rivera: You got to clear the basement now. Everybody clear the basement out. Let’s get everybody upstairs. When we come back from this commercial break, we’re going to blow that wall up.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: This was the big moment and it was what Harold Rubin had always fantasized about. The mystery of Al Capone’s vault was going to get cracked by blasting the thing to pieces.

Geraldo Rivera: Here’s Sharon torn up, the man who taught me how to use the Tommy gun. He’s also an explosives expert. Tell me about your. We’re going to use 60% dynamite sticks. Really? These two sticks located at the bottom of the wall.


Josh Levin, Josh Levine: How much did you feel like they wanted it to be real versus wanting it to be like a movie?

Geraldo Rivera: They said to me, Well, what’s it going to look like? I said, The walls will fall down. He says, No explosion. I said, No, not really. He says, Well, we can’t have that. I said, What do you want me to do? I’ll put flashbangs on the front of every one of them. He says, we’ll do that. Claire What’s the classic phrase like the fire in.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The hole or the hole? Geraldo had his right hand on an old timey plunger with a handle the kind wily coyote might use to trigger an explosion.

Geraldo Rivera: We brought that in so Harold could do that while I push the button.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: So the plunger actually wasn’t connected to anything.

Geraldo Rivera: Now. Three. Wow.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The flashbangs went off the wall, toppled over, and when the dust cleared, there was a whole lot more debris.

Geraldo Rivera: We’re digging in and we’re getting there. We’re finding out what’s happening.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: All of that shoveling turned up. Jack squat. Not even any more bottles. It was over, and there were still more than 45 minutes left to go.

Speaker 3: And they’re still digging like little like my puppy does when he’s digging in the grass.

Geraldo Rivera: Nothing really new and exciting for us. Yeah, we’re still digging.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: He was trying to put up a good front, but Tim Samuelson suspects that Geraldo knew what was really happening. Tim had caught a glimpse of him an hour earlier. Not long after that first wall came down.


Tim Samuelson: Perillo was actually way down at the other end of the basement. I mean, he kind of kept to himself when he wasn’t on camera. Then there was a milk crate there, and Geraldo sat on the milk crate. Put his hands over his face.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: There were still more pre-recorded segments left to run on various people component killed in the gangster’s final days in Miami. Every time Geraldo came back on the air after one of those taped bits, he sounded more defeated.

Geraldo Rivera: I don’t quite know how to tell you this at 8 minutes to the hour, but we’ve got another one there.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: There wasn’t anything behind that wall either.

Speaker 9: We didn’t find bodies or we didn’t find money. There really technically was not much. There wasn’t anything there.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: There was a bottle.

Speaker 9: A bottle. Yes, you’re right.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Had you talked in advance about if there’s nothing in the vault, then here’s how we should play it?

Speaker 9: Not really. That’s one thing we did not do.

Geraldo Rivera: All right, come here, guys. Hey, let me think about it.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: All right. Minutes before 9 p.m. Central Time, Geraldo asked the men who had done the excavation to gather around. Then he addressed the people watching all over the world.

Geraldo Rivera: It seems, at least up to now, that we’ve struck out with the vault and disappointed about that, as I’m sure you are. So what can I say? I’m sorry. I think my buddy is here for doing the job. Thank you for watching. I promised all the critics that we didn’t find anything. I’d sing a song. So. Chicago. Chicago. That toddling town. All right, I’m going. I’ll see you tonight. I’m sorry. See you next time. Take it easy. I’m three. That’s. I just want to say.


Speaker 2: And I can remember the abruptness at the end of it all and just like the disappointment. And then it was done. That’s how you’re going to end it.

Speaker 3: Geraldo be funny. Don’t sing.

Speaker 4: I was in the zone of Wow. What a bummer of an end.

Speaker 9: I would have tried not to walk off that way like our although did. What the heck? I wasn’t doing it. So it’s hard for me to say. We had a party after the show and Geraldo did not come to the party. I know he was devastated.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Her, although says he stopped by the party for a moment but spent most of the night at a nearby bar pounding tequila. In a 2011 interview. He said that he tried to shut himself off from the world.

Geraldo Rivera: I knew that I wrecked my reputation, that I had fallen into the trap where I was exactly the caricature that everyone said I was and I’d never work again in the business.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The critics were not kind. The Chicago Tribune called the special Rapid Fire nonsense. The L.A. Times wrote that there were two empty vaults in Chicago. One was in the basement of the Lexington Hotel. The other inside Rivera’s head. When Al Capone’s vault gets namechecked today, it’s shorthand for big time buildup with zero payoff, or if you’re feeling less polite for massive consumer fraud. Although Homer Simpson was way more charitable than that.

Speaker 9: There was nothing in El Capone’s vault.

Geraldo Rivera: But it was in a row. Those bald dome.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Alan Graffman confessed to me that he’d suspected they might come up empty. All of that fancy X-ray equipment they’d brought in before the show, it hadn’t turned up anything super promising.


Speaker 4: More and more, we were coming up with dead ends. So we had an inkling. And I don’t even know to this day if Harold don’t know exactly. But we knew it could turn out disappointing.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: It did turn out disappointing for the people watching at home. And Alan Grafman thought that he might have to pay the price.

Speaker 4: We could have been fired. We didn’t know. Could have been that the advertisers were going to boycott us for the next 20 years.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: He learned his fate the morning after the special aired.

Speaker 4: Get up at 530. Go into the office and at 6:00, the ratings come across. They come across by fax.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Are you standing by the fax machine?

Speaker 4: Waiting, essentially. Yeah. We’re huddled around a table. We’re all looking at the same fax.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Is it spit out like that? It’s like a dot matrix, but.

Speaker 4: It’s a little better than that. I mean, we’re staring at it and we’re looking at something no one had ever seen before. It was crazy. Crazy numbers.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The mystery of Al Capone’s vaults attracted 45% of all viewers in New York City, 61% in L.A., and 73% in Chicago. All told, 28 and a half million American families watched the special. It was the most ever for a syndicated TV show, beating out David Frost interviews with Richard Nixon.

Speaker 4: The industry was agog. Who’s Tribune Entertainment? Who is Allen Grafman? We were a hot property.

Speaker 9: After we had gotten the readout of the ratings. We went up and slid those under the door of Harold, the suite that changed his mind. He then got pretty excited.


Josh Levin, Josh Levine: When he saw those ratings for all. They laughed so hard he nearly choked. All of a sudden, his agents were inundated with million dollar offers. By the next year, he and Alan Grafman had struck a deal for a new daytime talk show.

Geraldo Rivera: Let me introduce our guests today. They are young, smart, good looking kids who have murdered in the name of Satan.

Speaker 4: It was the tentpole that supported Tribune, Entertainment and Geraldo for over a decade. And that’s what we found in the vault.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The way Alan Grafman and Doug Llewellyn see it. The mystery of Al Capone’s vaults can be considered a failure for them. It was a colossal triumph.

Speaker 4: It turned out to be a moment in history that many people look back with a smile.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: And the criticism was that America got suckered or conned, right?

Speaker 4: Yes. Yeah.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Did you feel bad for people that had watched it?

Speaker 4: No, not at all. We promised 2 hours and we delivered 2 hours.

Speaker 9: The show was a success from a television point of view. The only thing was there wasn’t anything in the vault. Okay, so be it. We didn’t promise anything would be there. All we said was, this is what we think is here. We’re going to explore together and find out.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Is there anything you would do differently for that show in retrospect?

Speaker 9: Not really. I think we did the best we could, and I wouldn’t have changed anything, quite frankly.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: When Harold Rubin died in 2007, he was still bitter that his own quest to profit off the Lexington Hotel got cut short.


Speaker 2: It’s one of those things in life that to me it’s tragedy. Minor tragedy, but a tragedy. It was a tragedy for my father. I mean, it left a pretty big impression on me. It’s a it’s a large part of my life. I miss the weird Harold ness of it all. I do miss that.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Less than a year after the special, the Son Beau Foundation dropped its plans to rehab the Lexington, saying it was short on funds. In 1995, a judge declared the building a public nuisance. That fall, the hotel got demolished. An architect who studied it before it met the wrecking ball didn’t find any secret tunnels or hidden staircases.

Tim Samuelson: Let’s see what it says here. Leasing office. Maybe I should look for an apartment here. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate?

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The block where the Lexington one stood is now home to a high rise luxury apartment building. When Tim Samuelson took us to the neighborhood earlier this year, he couldn’t help pointing out everything that had changed.

Tim Samuelson: Here in the corner as a grocery store, the South Loop Market. That’s where the old Lexington Drug Store used to be. So if you walk down this side here and go halfway through, there’s a doorway here. That would be about the location of where there was an alley.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Tim started rooting around to see if there was anything left of Al Capone’s old headquarters.

Tim Samuelson: All right, so now here, amidst a row of dumpsters, now they probably have pretty good security on this. So I doubt we’ll get in there, but we can try it. Let’s walk around there. And at least we’d be kind of near where we want to be. But now we’re at the end of the parking garage and actually where this is what the alley used to go through. It’s gone now. So anyway, here’s an open door that leads him to the site of the Lexington Hotel. Let’s see where it takes us. Look at all these doors just open.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: I could tell you what we found on the other side of that open door. Oh, ho, ho, ho, ho! But maybe some mysteries are better left unsolved. Next time on one year, 1986, an injustice in the Mississippi Delta blocks the black community from taking power and inspires them to hit their hometown where it hurts.

Geraldo Rivera: We have tried our very best to reason with you.

Speaker 2: But the only thing you’re going to understand is economic pressure. So here it comes.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: One year is written by me. Josh Levin. Our senior producer is Evan Chong. This episode was produced by Sam Kim, Derek, John, Sophie Summergrad, Madeline Ducharme, Evan Chang and Me.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: It was edited by Evan Chang and Derek John, Slate’s senior supervising producer of Narrative Podcasts. Our senior technical director is Merritt Jacob. Holly Allen created the artwork for the season. You can send us feedback and ideas and memories from 1986 and one year at And you can call us on the one year hotline at 2033430777. We’d love to hear from you.

Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Special thanks to John Joslin, Bill Helmer. Ruthann Fowler. Billy Dameron. Stephen Zeller. George Gores. Alan Jack. Jesse Pickett. John Bidstrup. Hillary Fry. Joel Anderson. Susan MATTHEWS. Soul Worthen. Bill Carey. Katie Rayford. Ben Richmond. Caitlin Schneider. Cleo Levin. Seth Brown, Rachel Strom and Alicia montgomery, Slate’s VP of Audio. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week with more from 1986.

Tim Samuelson: We are probably pretty close to the exact area where the doorway that was bricked up that they broke open for the television show was right here. We’re standing right at the spot. This is now tenant storage for the building, the Lexx. So we’re standing with these cages filled with all kinds of people’s lawn chairs.