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Old photos found in St. Petersburg's "Capone house" renew the mystery

ST. PETERSBURG

What secrets might lie beneath the fireplace mantel?

Curious, real estate agent Dan Nease slowly hoisted off the heavy wooden slab. And there in the soot, apparently untouched for decades, was a yellowed photo from 1931.

Pure coincidence? Or more evidence that this Shore Acres house was built by gangster Al Capone, who went to prison in the same year — 1931 — that the house was first sold.

Since a Jan. 28 Times story on current efforts to sell the Capone place, there have been numerous offers and a visit from a Mexican TV crew in town to cover the Super Bowl but looking for quirky stories on the side. While waiting for the reporter and cameraman, Nease decided to take a peek under the mantel of the white-brick fireplace with fish tiles — fish purportedly appear in every house Capone owned.

Curled in the soot were two small black and white photos. One, undated, is of two men and a woman standing beneath what appears to be a rock formation. The other shows two women and three men, posed in front of a body of water and what appears to be a railroad trestle. The back of this photo bears a postmark: Grand Island, Neb., Oct. 20, 1931.

Who are these people? Where were the photos taken? And is there any connection to Capone?

When built in 1925, the house was on the water but if there was ever a bridge, it's long since gone. Intriguingly, though, Capone had a brother who lived in Nebraska. He went by the name James Hart ("Capone'' might have attracted a little too much unwanted attention back then), and Hart's son and grandson are still there, according to Jonathan Eig, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who's writing a book on Capone.

The Times e-mailed both photos to Eig to see whether he could identify the people. He couldn't but made this observation:

"They're not dressed well enough to be gangsters!''

Since Capone's day, the house has had several owners, among them a prolific home flipper who sold it for $740,000 in 2006 at the peak of the real estate boom. The buyer defaulted, and the house is back with Countrywide Home Loans, which initially listed it at $262,000. It's now at $254,900.

"We've had several offers, but the bank has not accepted any,'' says Scott Samuels, liquidation specialist for ReMax Metro in St. Petersburg. "But with all the publicity, they've paid a whole lot of money to have the inside and outside painted.''

The loud colors are gone, replaced by softer taupes and beiges. The new owner will still have a lot of work to do — there are visible signs of termites, the yard is a wreck and the kitchen badly needs updating.

Still, how many houses can boast such a rich, mysterious past? Did Capone, who went to prison for tax evasion, stash some loot under the hardwood floors? Are there gems hidden in the attic? And who are those people in the photos? If you have a clue, give us a shout.

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

Old photos found in St. Petersburg's "Capone house" renew the mystery 02/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 21, 2009 3:30am]
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