Oakdale author’s knack for history unearths gangster hideout story


Oakdale author Betty Passick with her historical novel, “Gangster in our Midst.” (Solomon Gustavo/Review)

Al Capone was found guilty of tax evasion in 1931, put away in part by testimony from his bookkeeper, Louie La Cava. La Cava, who hid out in Iowa, is the subject of Oakdale author Betty Passick’s historical novel, “Gangster in our Midst.” (courtesy of the U.S. Department of Justice)

Fairbank, Iowa, population 1,123, had a rumor so juicy it persisted for generations. 

People believed a gangster, Al Capone’s bookkeeper, Louie La Cava, relocated to the farmtown in the 1920s to hide out. 

“Why do you think this?” Oakdale author Betty Passick asked Fairbank residents a little before 2013, some 30 years after La Cava had died.

First off, they told her, La Cava was an Italian in a starkly Scandinavian, German and Irish town. His darker skin and hair stuck out, precisely at a time when the nation was preoccupied with the Italian mob. 

Also, they insisted, La Cava had “very gangster mannerisms.”

“Like what?” Passick, 72, said she asked. “Did he rob the town bank? Did he open his trunk and show off his Tommy guns?”

La Cava was in Fairbank to hide, not show off, said surviving residents in their 80s and 90s, who were kids at the time he would have moved there.

The key gangster mannerisms were his clothes and actions. Residents said La Cava was always dressed up in a fine suit and tie, a fine coat and a fedora. 

A favorite activity of La Cava’s was taking children to the movies. Passick heard stories from residents recalling times the purported gangster offered every kid in town a ticket to the local theater. The kids would meet at his house and La Cava would stand in the middle of them as they walked down the middle of the street to the show. 

“The gangster rule is that you don’t shoot at somebody who’s in the middle of women and children,” said Passick. 

Some Fairbank residents were convinced La Cava feared a gangster from New York or Chicago, who were trying to hunt him down. Others chalked the whole narrative to folklore. 

Passick, who grew up in Fairbank, got to the bottom of the story — La Cava really was Capone’s bookkeeper. 

She researched law enforcement reports and gangster history books, finding La Cava’s name and information connecting him to the gangster known as “Scarface.” She found La Cava’s testimony as bookkeeper weighed heavily in Capones’ 1931 tax evasion conviction. 

She then took the true story of La Cava moving to Fairbank, and accounts from people who remember him, to write the historical novel “Gangster in our Midst,” self-published in 2017.

Passick illustrates a fictionalized Fairbank, called Oxbow Village, in 1928, detailing a cast of local characters, including a police chief and priest, who are suspicious of La Cava. 

The story is told from the perspective of La Cava as keeps a low profile and thinks about attempts on his life made by the mob, angered by his disappearance. Narration often switches from omniscient to the paranoid, broken English-speaking mind of La Cava.

 

Writing in retirement

Passick grew up one of eight on a farm. Her family moved from farm to farm, settling in Fairbank when she was 9. 

That’s around the time she started writing, dabbling in poetry and exchanging letters with a local poet generous in time and encouragement. 

“Writing is my outlet, it always has been,” she said.

Out of school she started writing a personal column for the local newspaper. She did that for about a decade before working in project management and relocating for a job in the Twin Cities. 

Passick’s move to Oakdale followed her employment at 3M in the 1980s. She retired in 2007. 

All of her retired friends traveled. Passick, traveled, too, heading to the opposite side of the globe to see Hawaii and China, for example. And that was wonderful, but not enough.

Passick said she always held the ambition of writing a book but had no idea where to start. She decided to start with one about her family.

She thought it would be a “short, mousey book about family in Iowa,” in part because that was her simple goal, and in part because the material didn’t at first appear that rich. 

When she interviewed her brothers, they wrapped up their upbringing in a few sentences, saying Fairbank was a nice place to grow up. They also noted it was a nice place to fish. 

“They were no help at all,” she said. “That did not make a book.”

Passick expanded her family history to her grandparents, tracing their lineage from Germany to northeast Iowa. She went back to Faribank to talk to people. 

After five years of tracking her bloodline, she had a thick historical manuscript. Passick self-published it in 2013. There are copies in Iowa libraries, where Passick said researchers of all kinds check out the family history when studying the region. 

“Honest to God, it’s awesome,” said Passick of holding her lifelong goal of a published work in her hands. 

 

Accidental historian

Word of Passick’s knack for history hit her church. Arlington Hills Presbyterian Church, where she and her husband were married, before closing after 125 years of service, asked if she would write the church’s history for posterity. 

She got back to interviewing with confidence having a book under her belt, and put together a history she self-published in 2015. 

“Ask me if I was into history,” said Passick. “Not at all.”

Either way, now she had stumbled into a life as a historian. “I have this second career.”

“Nobody in my group of friends thinks this is an ideal way to retire,” said Passick, who couldn’t be more giddy about her new prospects. 

In her exciting new role, Passick was on the hunt for a new challenge. 

“Interviewing Fairbank locals before 2013 for the family history, I talked to teachers, former council members, people who waited on me in businesses in town while I grew up. They’re still talking about this gangster,” she said.

She took a break after her second book, then booked it back down to Fairbanks to see if there was a story to tell about the gangster. 

Since “Gangster in our Midst” came out in 2017, Passick has held book tours in Iowa. She is also working on a sequel. 

Her books can be found on her website, www.bettybrandtpassick.com.

 

–Solomon Gustavo can be reached at sgustavo@lillienews.com or 651-748-7815.

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