‘Not the typical private investigator’ Chicagoan who worked for stars dies at 64 October 24, 2006 BY FRANK MAIN Crime Reporter His license plate said “I SPY.” His business card bore the black silhouette of a sleuth in a fedora.
And his investigations involved a who’s who of People magazine personalities — Michael Jordan, Hugh Hefner, Michael Jackson and Yoko Ono to name a few.
Flamboyant, toupee-topped Ernie Rizzo was one of the most public of America’s private eyes, appearing regularly on national news shows to expound on the big crime of the moment.
Mr. Rizzo died Sunday night at Northwestern Hospital of a heart ailment. He was 64.
“He was not the typical private investigator,” said attorney Kathleen Zellner, who hired Mr. Rizzo to help clear her client Kevin Fox in the slaying of his 3-year-old daughter, Riley, in Will County.
“He was fearless,” Zellner said. “He was not afraid of the cops. He was very creative and he always produced new information.”
Mr. Rizzo’s love for snooping was kindled as a teenager while working in the suit department at a Montgomery Ward store in Chicago.
He would spot men who seemed as if they could not afford the suits they selected — and he often proved they were paying with stolen credit cards. The store rewarded him with a security job. War of words with his archrival He served in the Army, then hit the street as a cop in Lincolnwood and Franklin Park.
In the early 1970s, he became a full-time private gumshoe.
“He was very good at getting what he needed,” said friend Alan Rovin. “He did not take no for an answer.”
One of Mr. Rizzo’s favorite gigs involved Michael Jackson, who was accused in 1993 of molesting a Beverly Hills dentist’s son. Mr. Rizzo worked on behalf of the boy’s family, while private detective Anthony Pellicano — Mr. Rizzo’s archrival from Chicago — worked for Jackson.
The newspapers played up their war of words, with Pellicano calling Mr. Rizzo an “insignificant fruit fly” and Mr. Rizzo blasting Pellicano as a “part-time security guard.”
During his career, Mr. Rizzo had his scrapes with the law. In 1977, he was convicted of conducting illegal wiretaps and lost his private detective’s license for several years. Despite that legal road bump, America’s rich and famous turned to Mr. Rizzo.
He was hired to investigate the murder of candy heiress Helen Brach and worked on divorce cases involving the Wrigleys and Walgreens. Unorthodox tactics His tactics were sometimes unorthodox: In the Riley Fox case, he dropped a bag of meat into a tributary of the Kankakee River to refute her father’s original story that he had placed his daughter’s body at the edge of the creek and it floated downstream.
Zellner said the test backed up Kevin Fox’s claim that his confession was coerced and proved the body would have had to have been thrown off a bridge. He was later freed in his daughter’s killing.
“After the coroner’s inquest in the Fox case, I was walking down the street with him and he said, ‘The last time I had this many cameras around me, I was with Paris Hilton,'” Zellner said. “That was Ernie.” Mr. Rizzo is survived by his wife, Geraldine; a son, Scott, and a daughter, Tracy.
Wakes will be held from 4 to 9 p.m. Wednesday and 3 to 9 p.m. Thursday at Sax-Tiedemann Funeral Home, 9568 Belmont Ave. in Franklin Park. A funeral mass will be offered at noon Friday at St. Mary’s Church, 10307 Dundee Rd., in Huntley.