Owner of Oak Park's torched Velvet Rope gay night spot charged with arson, insurance fraud

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Police arrested the owner of the former Velvet Rope Ultra Lounge Friday night and charged him with two counts of arson and one count of insurance fraud, the Village of Oak Park reported.

Frank Elliott, 26, was arrested at another bar he had opened subsequent to the Oak Park fire. The arrest was made at the Bonsai Bar at 3503 N. Halsted St, Chicago.

The Velvet Rope, 728 Lake St, was destroyed by fire in the early morning of June 3, 2012 and never reopened. At the time, Elliott said he thought the bar was targeted because it catered to a gay clientele. He said he found anti-gay messages scrawled on the walls inside the burned building and told reporters he believed the fire was a hate crime.

Oak Park fire personnel responded to reports of smoke around 6:30 a.m. The fire was extinguished in minutes, according to David Powers, a spokesman for the village of Oak Park. The Flat Top Grill and Geppetto's Toy Box, two adjacent businesses, also sustained water and fire damage that required them to close for months. No injuries were reported.

As Elliott's narrative that the fire was the result of a hate crime spread, Oak Park and Chicago's gay community offered support for Elliott and Velvet Rope employees. A benefit charging $20 per person was held at the Hideaway Bar in Forest Park.

But local investigators determined there was probable cause to indicate arson, and state investigators were called in.

Elliott's financial problems were exposed after Ellen Bettenhausen, a previous owner of the establishment and a lender in a 2008 promissory note, sued in August 2012 for breach of contract when Elliot failed to make payments on the note. He was also sued by U.S. Foodservice Inc. a wholesale food vendor for restaurant supply bills that weren't paid.

The owner of the Lake Street building, Mike Fox, of R.P. Fox and Associates, remodeled the building with insurance money. It has since been rented by Spiro Papageorge, who formerly owned Papaspiros across the street. Papageorge hopes to open a similar Greek restaurant at the location.

Oak Park Police Chief Rick C. Tanksley said investigators worked closely with the Office of Cook County State's Attorney to pursue the case for more than a year.

"This incident was a troubling one for our community, which prides itself on being open and welcoming to all. A hate crime just didn't make sense," Tanksley said in a statement released by village hall.

Elliott was transported to Cook County Criminal Court at 26th and California, where he is awaiting a bond hearing scheduled Saturday.

If convicted, Elliott could face up to seven years in prison for each count of arson and 15 years for insurance fraud, in addition to fines of $25,000 or more, Powers said.

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Frank Elliott's name.

Reader Comments

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Tommy from Forest Park  

Posted: November 22nd, 2013 9:00 AM

Totally called this. Guy has a failing business so he wants to get insurance money. What's worse is he played the "people hate gays" card. Oak Park is full of clueless Liberals.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: November 9th, 2013 6:32 PM

@ "So what happended with?" Alton Hayes has a Dec. 6 court date on his agg. battery/robbery/hate crime case. Before that he has Nov. 19 court dates on two traffic cases, one for a Chicago DUI/red light violation in March, 2012, that's still pending, and one for an an Aug. 2013 arrest in Chicago for driving a a revoked license (due to a previous DUI conviction).

Concerned Person  

Posted: November 8th, 2013 11:42 AM

I would like to address some of the comments especially the question concerning the employee's first of all NONE of the employee have been paid by the insurance company for any claims or damages to property they had inside the establishment and secondly anyone knows a chef has his own knives that he/she utilizes and does not carry them around as they generally only work at one establishment and leave them behind. Here a thought anyone care to think maybe employees have been helping authorities!

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: November 7th, 2013 10:19 PM

Good question. It's not that the Alton Hayes story is too hot for the WJ, I'm quite sure. All newspapers are burning the candle at both ends trying to do more and more with less and less. I'm glad to be through with it. The WJ staff pays attention here, so I expect they'll weigh in. But I'll check out the court files next time I'm by Maybrook. Meantime, cut the newspapers, especially the weeklies, some slack. They're busting' their asses. Really.

So what happended with... from OP  

Posted: November 7th, 2013 9:17 PM

@Bill Dwyer. You seem to know much about crime in the area. Can you tell us what happened to Alton Hayes III, the guy who beat up a kid in OP an said it was for of Trayvon Martin last year. Seems to hot for the WJ to handle. Just disturbing to me that it happened in OP.

Just Sayin'   

Posted: November 6th, 2013 8:56 AM

Bill, correct. Why didn't they come forward? Because they were just as guilty or didn't want to bite the hand that feeds them? Saw a better opportunity for "stardom" by any means necessary on Halsted St too? That drama, violent crime, drugs and more out there in Boystown can't be masked by a gay marriage march, stop bullying charity fundraiser or by boycotting Russian vodka anymore. They need to sweep their own front porches first. The drugs....my Lord ! I see it as a sleazy gay guy issue.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: November 5th, 2013 8:55 PM

Well, WoodBern, if Nixon had had the audacity to allegedly torch a bar in Oak Park back in the early 70s, I might have made more of an effort.

Woodward and Bernstein from nowhere close to here  

Posted: November 5th, 2013 8:15 PM

@Dwyer: way to chase the story. If Woodward and Bernstein followed your lead, Nixon would still be president and he is long dead.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: November 5th, 2013 8:10 PM

:)! Now, now, Just Sayin': It's Oooh Pappi, if I recall correctly. All the facts available on Elliott do not preclude him from holding a liquor license. A felony would, I believe. I would sincerely like to hear you're opinion on all the anonymous commenters here who are now criticizing Elliott despite not ever mentioning their concerns to the papers or police, I emphasize, as far as I am aware. I don't see this a sleazy gay guy issue- I see it as a sleazy guy's betrayal of public trust issue.

Just Sayin'   

Posted: November 5th, 2013 7:46 PM

@Bill Dwyer - yet he was still permitted to open not one bar, but TWO after all that? Sounds like Crook County or Halsted St to me. Anyway, according to himself and LinkedIn.com, he was a General Manager of a fancy salon in one of your fancy suburbs at the ripe age of 11 years old. His pic is posted there, it's him. He's also supposedly the owner of Poopy Papi (sp?)underwear too. The gays here are truly a hoot. If you don't trust them, there's good reason not to. Signed, Gay not from ORD

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: November 5th, 2013 6:39 PM

To be clear, Frank Elliott has several cases pending in CC County circuit court. And it APPEARS he may own more than one home in Cook County. Driver's license info related to traffic tickets shows him living at several addresses in recent years, one of which he MAY have purchased in 2007, before his OP condo. It's all worth looking into, and NOW, in light of his arrest and quite possible indictment, fair game for the press. Bob Woodward and the Washington Post included, if they're so inclined.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: November 5th, 2013 6:23 PM

@ Bill Kooper: Sure. I worked at WJ for years before resigning to work at their competitor, who hired me because of my record at such an excellent paper as the WJ?..@ WoodBern: I knew that and more as part of my research on Elliott, but any ethical media outlet does not report such facts merely in response to the POSSIBILITY that a person is responsible for a crime. Would YOU want your entire public record published just because questions were raised about some possibly extraneous situation? No?

Bill Kopper from Oak Park  

Posted: November 5th, 2013 6:15 PM

@Bill Dwyer. Bill I think it would be helpful and ethical if you identified your affiliation with WJ as part of your name in all comment responses.

Woodward and Bernstein from none of the local papers  

Posted: November 5th, 2013 6:11 PM

@Dwyer - that is some good reporting. Why didn't you report on it when you actually worked for a paper? Not enough time to dig or did the cops just not hand it to you?

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: November 5th, 2013 4:37 PM

@ Just Sayin': The Frank T. Elliott listed in CC County Clerk court records as charged with arson and insurance fraud was born in Feb. 1987. FWIW, he's lived in St. Charles, Carol Stream and most recently Bartlett. He's racked up 22 tickets during 10 traffic stops between Feb. 2005, as a 17 year old, and Jan. 2011. Convictions for DUI (in Berwyn), reckless driving, speeding three times, running a red light. Fines totaling $2,314, plus jail time for the reckless. Not exactly Mr. Responsible.

Matt  

Posted: November 5th, 2013 11:53 AM

Confused, employees had lose and collected thats why you have insurance. This owner if he set fire to his own business im sure did so without letting the employees know so they should be entitled to claims. If true he should go to jail but i fail to see what the employees did wrong.

Soo  

Posted: November 5th, 2013 9:47 AM

I think this is very shady. I hope that all the employees are investigated based on what everyone is saying. It sounds like there is a lot more to this story and people know more than they're telling.

Hmmmm  

Posted: November 5th, 2013 7:40 AM

Actually, there are some employees that worked there that did file claims with the insurance company and cashed out.People that said they left drag clothes, cooking utensils and more but then once the fire hit they went to the insurance companies to get cash for their belongings, And suddenly you own your own cooking company.And now with the facts out they say how he used old food to serve customers and other shady things.Why stay when you know those things? Sorry FISHY

Former Employee  

Posted: November 5th, 2013 1:41 AM

And none of us got any money from the insurance companym. If that's the case then I am still waiting on that check. FISHY you should really do your research more before you start slinging dirt and calling someone guily of keeping quiet.

Former Employee from Chicago  

Posted: November 5th, 2013 1:37 AM

This is a response to the comment left by FISHY.. I worked for this man and had absolutely no idea if my former employers story was true or not. Yes some of us did speculate that the fire was intentionally started but I had no idea if this true or not so I could not come right out and say yes it was arson. Investigators interviewed employees but all of them. Do you really think the owner went to his employees and said yes I did it and I am putting you all out of a job.Get a clue already!!!

OP news  

Posted: November 5th, 2013 12:34 AM

CNN is NOT just merely reporting the news. Anyone with half a brain could realize that they're more aligned with the right. The difference between Fox and MSNBC? Fox are professional and ideological A-holes that hate people, MSNBC hates on professional and ideological A-holes and does not hide it. CNN pretends that they are not A-holes.

Just Sayin'  

Posted: November 4th, 2013 10:11 PM

I knew this was fishy when he suddenly found the perfect place on notorious Halsted St to open a new place. The opening of Bonsai (a silly concept) seemed to be delayed for quite a while due to city hall red tape so I thought they were on to this then. Furthermore, I can't possibly believe this guy is 26. His LinkedIn profile lists him as a general manager of a salon starting in 1998 which would have made him 11 years old at the time. He looks well into his 30s at least. Or maybe it's stress.

Fishy  

Posted: November 4th, 2013 10:00 PM

I think the people that worked for him are just as guilty! They all knew about who started the fire and said nothing! And most of them already got back money from the insurance companies saying their stuff was in that fire. Now...those very same co-workers are now saying they want to sue. I REALLY hope the police investigate EVERY single person who has worked there because EVERY single person that has worked there is JUST AS SHADY!

Jesse from Westchester  

Posted: November 4th, 2013 9:22 PM

My Partner and I were there the Thursday prior to the "Fire". The place was unkempt, broken window panes, the fridge couldn't keep a beer cold, the air conditioner was not working, liquor bottles were almost empty and the almost no food available....Then suddenly there is a fire.......Really....How convenient...

Clueless from Oak Park  

Posted: November 4th, 2013 3:38 PM

Is this the unnamed business Oak Park is paying to stay in town?

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: November 4th, 2013 3:16 PM

Good point, Wondering. CNN acts like a news gathering operation at all times- that English bloke aside- and is my go to source for breaking news. MSNBC, not so much. I've stopped watching both Al Sharpton and Chris Hayes because if their annoying biases. Then again, MSNBC makes it clear they're a political channel. Fox "News," on the other hand, is continually presenting opinion as fact and speculation as news. And they're often flat out incorrect.

OP Transplant  

Posted: November 4th, 2013 3:01 PM

OP - "Yes we are tolerated but not really embraced" You may want to modify your expectations. It's possible to accept everybody without embracing anybody.

Tired of Taxes from Oak Park  

Posted: November 4th, 2013 2:41 PM

There are still real incidents of anti-gay vandalism from time to time in OP. However, it is people like this idiot that muddle the real cases. The newspaper should use "alleged" in cases like this, the same as they do when a minority is arrested for a crime.

OP  

Posted: November 4th, 2013 12:27 PM

Oak PArkers - please stop acting so sacrosanct with regard to openness and community. Yes to a degree but lets be honest. OP days of progrssive intellectualism are over and replaced with snobby social climbing yuppies withover indulged children. What he did was wrong but STOP acting like OP is truly welcoming to blacks, gays etc. Yes we are tolerated but not really embraced

Woodward and Bernstein from none of the local OP papers  

Posted: November 4th, 2013 11:47 AM

Of course, it is the utmost in classic WJ hubris that the comments were disabled in the original story since the comments raising questions about the fire did not fit the staff's ideology.

Woodward and Bernstein from None of the local OP papers  

Posted: November 4th, 2013 11:44 AM

@Bill Dwyer: Why are all these facts relating to removal of booze and the security cameras coming out only now? Where were the WJ and you digging into this story looking for those facts? You had suspicions and off the record sources. Did you look to other sources to get the story? Fact is, the local press here are nothing but stenographers. No wonder people don't buy papers anymore.

Pete  

Posted: November 4th, 2013 11:41 AM

"What's with the swipe at Fox News? I don't understand why everyone in OP rips on Fox News so much? CNN, MSNBC, etc... are no better than Fox News." The swipe is Oak Park is a liberal stronghold in Illinois and MSNBC is all the rage. Even though the reporting angle is as much to the left as FOX is to the right, for whatever reason MSNBC is OK to watch and FOX isn't. They both do the same thing, it's just OK if you're on MSNBC. Got it?

HisDadness  

Posted: November 4th, 2013 11:21 AM

This seemed fishy from the start. Not surprising in the least. The term hate crime shouldn't be thrown about one way or the other until someone is actually charged with a hate crime.

Chuck Izzo from River Forest  

Posted: November 4th, 2013 11:20 AM

If found guilty Ellot will have plenty of time to ponder "how did this ever happen to me". He may want to attend beautician school at this point, I understand that inmates who can braid hair can make a few extra bucks in the Grey Bar hotel. Those funds can be used to pay down the potential $25,000 fine.

Oak Park Person  

Posted: November 4th, 2013 11:16 AM

I remember a conversation here about whether gay people were as likely to commit a crime as anyone else. The tone of a number of people who posted suggested that gay people were above such things. A belief in the equality of all people requires us to hold that gay people are just like the rest of us, a reasonable assertion. OP political correctness requires us to hold that gay people are better than the rest of us. I guess working insurance claims made me cynical.

Wondering  

Posted: November 4th, 2013 10:34 AM

Wow Bill Dwyer and fans. Quite a conversation taking place. Bill is correct that there should be no room for speculation or innuendo in reporting. Those writers here wanting that stick to TMZ. But Bill slamming Fox Network news? Some cases you're right but ever watch MSNBC? Makes me sick the lies frequently on their end. I only see it because my son, sadly, is addicted to it. Don't watch Fox Network myself so don't really know.

muntz  

Posted: November 4th, 2013 10:13 AM

His OP business isn't going so hot, so instead of manning-up and paying his debtors and closing shop, he instead plays the victim card. Removing high-end liquor and security cameras is not the best way to hide your lies either. It's hard enough getting loans to open your own business in your early 20s...this guy doesn't make it any easier. Sounds like yet another guy who wants to own a bar (HOW FUN!) with none of the responsibility. "BILLS?!?! They expect ME to pay?!?!"

Sheronda  

Posted: November 4th, 2013 10:01 AM

Mr Jim Coughlin, I believe everyone is innocent UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY. I think you have the cart in front of the horse.

Rick Springfield   

Posted: November 4th, 2013 9:56 AM

This conversation is clearly right on target. Maybe we can get together to hash it out after my show on Nov 24th.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: November 3rd, 2013 9:21 PM

Middle: It wasn't OP Fire Dept. that "confirmed such investigation." It was the police. I and others interviewed Elliott. His responses were duly noted. I NEVER believed he was telling the truth. But the media doesn't get to speculate or "report (their) doubts" in a story, unless they have substantiation?.. As for ECW: Fox News royally sucks, in my personal opinion. Always has, always will. Often biased and often not factual. Don't like my opinion of Roger Ailes' "news" operation? Tough.

ECW from Oak Park  

Posted: November 3rd, 2013 6:46 PM

@ Bill. What's with the swipe at Fox News? I don't understand why everyone in OP rips on Fox News so much? CNN, MSNBC, etc... are no better than Fox News.

Mr. Middle  

Posted: November 3rd, 2013 6:43 PM

@ Bill...It also goes without saying that by June the 4th the Fire Department confirmed such investigation was occurring. Yet no one interviewed the owner or reported his actions? If you noticed him being evasive did you put that on the record? All I am saying is that being skeptical of a story is the job of all journalist and reporting that skepticism of authorities is a responsible action. No need to speculate but report doubts clearly.

Mr. Middle  

Posted: November 3rd, 2013 6:32 PM

@ Bill...my remembrance is limited to your work versus the whole of the incidents that included TV reports that emphasized the Gay owner tragedy. In regards to off the record it would then come down to two issues; was the information you received "on background" or where you aware of an ongoing Police investigation and failed to report that. If you where told the Police where investigating arson you could simply report that as factual. The Police have no right to limit your reporting.

Jim Coughlin from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: November 3rd, 2013 3:52 PM

Oak Park Fire Department personnel were put at risk as a result of this criminal act. I hope that is considered by the judge who sets the sentence.

OP Rez  

Posted: November 3rd, 2013 1:27 PM

This guy's a low life. Oak Park's should be mad at him for trying to smear their community. Gay's should be disgusted at him for using their sexual identity to commit fraud. The business owners next door should sue him for putting a serious dent in their business for forcing them to close for months and jacking up their insurance premiums. This guy will get his own in prison.

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: November 3rd, 2013 12:10 PM

@ Mr. Middle: You "do not remember the news reports you're referring to exactly," BUT you lecture that "the proper tone should have been this?" So, I should take seriously a recommendation from someone who can't even recall the details of the story? The most telling aspect of you're ignorance is the suggestion a reporter should include an off the record conversation in a news story. What, exactly, Mr. Middle, do you not understand about the term "off the record"?

Mr. Middle  

Posted: November 3rd, 2013 11:26 AM

@ Bill...you really should ask yourself this? Was there equal evidence of a hate crime or arson? I do not remember your reports exactly but the proper tone should have been this..."It appears to be a crime fuel by hate towards a Gay owned business but off the record investigators say they will look at possible causes including arson." Logic and common sense required that.

Dita  

Posted: November 3rd, 2013 8:51 AM

I always suspected him. He conveniently removed the security cameras right before the fire. Oak Park is very open to all people so the owner saying it was a hate crime was a big red flag. Glad he was finally thrown in jail for lying to everyone and playing the victim.

Waste  

Posted: November 3rd, 2013 7:43 AM

it's a shame that those beautiful curved windows were destroyed.

Tom Rupp from Oak Park  

Posted: November 3rd, 2013 7:30 AM

@Bill Dwyer- Jeez Bill, take it easy! All I'm saying is reporters speculate and insinuate all the time. There wasn't any of that in the fire story (as I recall) and it seemed so obviously a set up by the owner. My intent wasn't to demean your reporting skills; I've read your stuff over the years and appreciate it.

Brian from Chicago  

Posted: November 3rd, 2013 2:19 AM

No surprise. Also his place in Boyztown for which he torched Velvet Rope is also tanking.

DeJordy  

Posted: November 2nd, 2013 8:05 PM

Obvious from the beginning.

Violet Aura  

Posted: November 2nd, 2013 7:27 PM

And here comes the money shot! Ding! Ding!

Christine from Oak Park  

Posted: November 2nd, 2013 4:46 PM

If only he had the right connections to receive TIF's and/or business incentives from DTOP or Oak Park Village like the Lake&Forest hotel project AND the unnamed Oak Park business currently being courted to remain open. If....

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: November 2nd, 2013 4:44 PM

@T. Rupp- I was one of those reporters at the time of the arson, and I wasn't the least bit PC, buddy. We just couldn't write about our suspicions or off-the record comments from authorities. Tell me, do you prefer a media that prints speculation and facts not yet in evidence. Go listen to Fox News.

Lori M from Oak Park  

Posted: November 2nd, 2013 3:54 PM

I knew it! And I just saw the re-run footage of his interview for WGN. His comments about how Oak Park didn't treat him well because he was gay and owned a gay bar were such an insult!

Rob from Oak park  

Posted: November 2nd, 2013 3:15 PM

Where does a 26 year old (then 23-24 yo) get the money to open a bar in the first place?

Christopher Sunner from Oak Park  

Posted: November 2nd, 2013 2:43 PM

If anyone who knew him, he was a treacherous, deceitful scumbag, and practically anyone who frequented the Velvet Rope knew that he set the fire as a way of getting insurance money to open Bonsai Bar. He deserves whatever punishment he gets for the arson plus the damage he did to the gay community by staging this as a hate crime.

Doesn't this just frost you?  

Posted: November 2nd, 2013 2:34 PM

This owner was treated as credible before the facts were in trying to direct the investigation, saying his fire was a hate crime. His accusations are indeed his own hate crime. Anybody who knows anything about OP knew his story was flawed. There is so much apathy in Oak Park that no one cares to oppose any business development/ establishment. Anti-gay sentiments are long gone from Oak Park. We have more gays on community boards and running Downtown Oak Park than probably any other Chicago suburb

Tommentary  

Posted: November 2nd, 2013 1:52 PM

I hate paying my creditors + so I'm going to stage a crime = hate crime.

From the beginning. . .  

Posted: November 2nd, 2013 1:41 PM

..if this was a hate crime, they would not have put the supposed gay slurs on the inside of a burning building. They would have put the message on the outside of the building to send a message to the entire community. Fact is that Frank Eliott was known for watering down drinks; and just all in all poor business judgment. Other workers have been quoted to have said that all the more expensive liquor was removed from the bar before the fire. Helen Keller could have solved this one.

Tom Rupp from Oak Park  

Posted: November 2nd, 2013 1:00 PM

I remember the local press dutifully reporting this as an arson and an obvious hate crime, even when the idea of some local gay haters torching a bar made absolutley no sense. PC journalism at it's worst.

I seem to remember...  

Posted: November 2nd, 2013 12:43 PM

..a few accusations of people being anti-gay, bigots, homophobes etc. because it was mentioned that this might be an insurance scam.

Brian Slowiak from Oak Park  

Posted: November 2nd, 2013 12:09 PM

He supposedly used anti gay slurs to cover the offense.IIsnt this a hate crime?

Bill Dwyer  

Posted: November 2nd, 2013 12:00 PM

It's about time..... I stood right next to this guy as he stood outside his torched business that morning, wolfing down a take-out lunch and watching calmly as police came in and out of his business. If he was "devastated," as he contended back then, he didn't show it in the least. He's innocent until proven guilty and will have his day in court, but I always found him unbelievable, despite his repeatedly playing the part of the aggrieved gay man. Good work, OPPD, and Jean Lotus.

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