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JAUNTS: In and around Ventura County | VENTURA COUNTY

Shady Lady

Yacht with dubious past hosts mystery shows and ghost hunts.


She's a lady with a past.

In her younger days, the 71-foot yacht docked at Ventura Harbor may have been a plaything of Al Capone's boys. Later owners swore she was haunted. So now, it only seems fitting that the Duchess III would serve as a floating mystery theater, among other things.

On some weekends, local actors stage a whodunit aboard the aging vessel--but not the kind where you sit back and watch the plot unfold. This is interactive theater, and the little old lady you thought was a member of the audience might turn out to be, well . . .

This Friday local ghost-hunter Richard Senate will lead a psychic gathering below deck and attempt contact with any ghosts that might call the 72-year-old boat home. His wife, Debbie, will do psychic readings on board July 11.

If that sounds a little far out, cigar aficionados can climb aboard Wednesday for an evening of cigar sampling--perhaps in the tradition of Capone, who had a weakness for a good cigar, judging by the boat's collection of old photos.

The Duchess III's newest owner is Mark Frees, who took over last December. Frees has spruced her up some--the engine is inoperable so she doesn't leave the dock--but she's far from elegant.

"I don't want to dress up the boat too much: It is haunted," said Frees, a massage therapist who lives in Ventura. Not that Frees has seen any ghosts lurking about. Even the Capone connection is a bit murky, but no one can question that the Duchess III has had a colorful history.

Built in 1925, the boat was a government vessel used to transport prisoners to McNeil Island in Puget Sound, near Tacoma, Wash. A year or so later, missionaries took it over to minister to Eskimos along the Alaskan coast. From there the ownership trail gets fuzzy.

Capone's Chicago crime syndicate may have owned it for some 20 years, beginning in the late 1920s, according to Anne LaBel, who researched the boat and helped Frees with some renovations. But the ship wasn't registered under the gangster king's name.

"The IRS would have seized it," LaBel said. (The notorious Capone was never convicted of anything more violent than tax evasion before he died in 1947.) Capone's brother, Frank, may have been the owner, according to LaBel, who said the boat was reportedly run by Jake "The Greasy Thumb" Cusack, an accountant.

The Duchess III got its name from a subsequent owner, a wholesale liquor distributor, who had known Capone's brother in Chicago. But Duke Molner, now 93 and living in the Los Angeles area, said the Capones never owned the boat. "All their activity was in Chicago and Detroit," he said. 'The boat was always on the West Coast.

Nor does he think there is anything to its supposedly haunted legacy. He sold it, he said, "because I was tired of working on it."

A string of owners followed, including a couple who bought it in 1989 only to have it sink on their honeymoon trip to Catalina Island. They retrieved it, but claimed it was only after they sold the boat that a baffling illness that had afflicted the husband finally disappeared.

The boat, painted white with black trim, has been a curiosity since it took up residence at Ventura Harbor at least 10 years ago. After its arrival here, spooky stories about it began to circulate. Lights reportedly moved mysteriously below deck from one end to the other. There have been reports of icy whirlwinds, apparitions in mirrors, and inexplicable smells and sounds.

"At first I thought it was hype, a promotional thing," Frees said. But since he took over the boat, he has heard footsteps, he said. And people who claim to have psychic ability have come aboard and reported ghostly presences, including a benevolent woman Frees calls "Emily" and "an angry gentleman" dubbed LeRoy.

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, the boat definitely has a spooky feel. Climbing down steep stairs to the forward cabin you enter what Frees calls the "ghost room." With its grim, dark paneling and dark benches it has a cold, stark look, relieved only by the fireplace.

It's appropriately eerie for Senate's ghost hunt and lecture Friday from 7 to 9 p.m. He said the group might conduct a seance in hopes of communicating with any ghosts aboard, and they might use dowsing rods or temperature gauges to try to locate areas of psychic disturbance.

"It will be a couple of hours of fun," Senate said. The cost is $10; refreshments will be served.

The aroma of fine hand-made cigars will waft through the boat when Frees hosts cigar-smoking night Wednesday from 7 to 10 p.m. In addition to the smokes, the $30 admission fee includes wine tasting and an assortment of finger food from the Greek, a harbor restaurant.

If you like a mystery with a more conclusive end, the Duchess III will be the setting for "Murder a La Carte," an interactive show run by Bill Bateman and his Dockside Mystery Theater. The next performance is June 28, beginning at 7 p.m. Tickets are $35 and include a buffet dinner catered by Milano's Italian Restaurant at the harbor.

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