Barrington, a bucolic village roughly 40 miles northwest of the Loop, looks exactly the way city dwellers might imagine a quiet, wealthy suburb. The houses are big, the lawns short, the people polished. Former residents include reality TV fixture Kristin Cavallari and square-jawed Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins. Teenagers, as they do, have long called it Borington.
Barrington, however, is not boring. The town, which has slightly more than 10,000 residents, contains only slightly fewer ghost stories. Its past includes mysterious accidents, desecrated graves, sketchy safe houses and the burned torso of a Mafia stool pigeon. Locals going about their business on the Northwest Highway near Cuba Road are driving the same stretch where Baby Face Nelson, on his way home to Barrington in 1934, got into a bloody machine-gun battle that took his life — and the lives of two bureau agents. The town reenacted the shootout in 2015 in a parking lot on Lions Parkway, just behind a McDonald’s. (A plaque commemorates the site in nearby Langendorf Park not far from the pickleball courts.)
And out on Rainbow Road, tucked deep in the woods behind a foreboding iron gate and down a tantalizingly long driveway, there was a house. The house is long gone — no more than a ghost lost to the forest and the inevitable bulldozers of suburban developers — but its stories live on, passed around like a joint by teenagers thirsty for something, anything, to break the infinite boredom of suburban adolescence. And the house still haunts people who once lived there: the sister who witnessed her brother’s accidental death; a little girl who lay awake hearing noises in the attic; a caretaker’s son who believes he grew up in the most exciting and terrifying place on earth.
As the years pass and their lives settle into something far more ordinary, memories still reach out and beckon them like an icy-cold finger in the night.
In a place where solid, verifiable fact has a way of blurring into half-baked rumors, the house on Rainbow Road was shrouded in mystery, too, for a generation of Barrington residents. Long after the last owners moved out and left the house abandoned, it was a terrifying rite of passage to hop the iron gate and explore the decaying grounds in search of ghosts and adrenaline. Those bold enough to venture all the way down to the basement were supposedly met with the blood and pentagrams drawn by the kids before them. To some locals, memories of the secluded property still chill their blood.
And here’s the crazy thing: A surprising number of the legends are true.
24-karat gold fixtures and ghosts
In its heyday, the house at 92 Rainbow Road was a brazen declaration of wealth. Built in the early 1960s, it boasted comforts that wouldn’t be standard in most homes for decades: satellite TV, marble floors, a gourmet kitchen. A waterfall wall cascaded beneath a grand staircase into a pond stocked with koi fish and a curvy bar was decorated with pictures of the racehorses the patriarch owned at Arlington Park. Even the powder room was adorned with velvet wallpaper and 24-karat gold fixtures.
Isolated and picturesque, the land around the house had long been ideal for residents in search of privacy. Once belonging to the Potawatomi, Chippewa and Ottawa tribes, the rural area now known as Barrington was “founded” in 1854 by New York farmers who enjoyed large swaths of property far from the prying eyes of government interference.
The unchecked freedom led to inevitable violence from Rainbow Road’s very start. In 1877, a farmer named Peter Davison, angry that the nascent road was infringing on his orchard, built a blockade along the road, harassed travelers and ultimately shot a road commissioner named John Robertson, through the chin. The shot — accidental, claimed Davison — sent Davison to prison and Robertson to the cemetery.
By the 1930s, every outlaw from Al Capone to John Dillinger seemed to have connections in Barrington, perfectly situated between Chicago, where criminals worked, and Wisconsin, where they played. “The criminal element in Chicago was able to use [the newly built] Northwest Highway to get away from the city, either for pleasure to Lake Geneva, or as a hideout if things were heating up in Chicago,” says Kate Mills, a librarian and history buff at the Barrington Area Library.
The combination of privacy and little in the way of law enforcement interference didn’t hurt. So, if one wanted to, say, punish a Capone lieutenant named Mike “de Pike” Heitler — who may have also been a rat — by locking him in an ice house on a large estate and setting a fire so hot that authorities can only identify the body by his false teeth, one could.
Other strange tragedies over the years touched Barrington and its residents. On Aug. 4, 1972, four Vietnam War veterans identified as members of De Mau Mau, a militant group whose members were implicated in slayings in Highland Park and Monee, invaded a secluded Barrington Hills house at random, intending to rob it. Instead they killed everyone inside: a retired insurance executive, his wife, stepdaughter and sister-in-law. The Manson-esque crime scarred neighbors, some of whom bought guns and guard dogs in response.
With all these dark undercurrents running through the area, the house on Rainbow Road was already larger than life. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the 40-acre lot of land on a former turkey-and-squab farm was occupied by an extravagantly successful real estate developer and his family, plus various staff, groundskeepers, pets and farm animals. (Due to the traumatic nature of some events, family members would only discuss what happened there on condition of anonymity. But even a moderately interested web sleuth could find more details.)
The sprawling, woodsy grounds were a cartoon wonderland that included a heliport, a six-car garage, a gas station, 50 phone lines, two barns, a giant playground, an apple orchard, multiple tennis courts and a silo. The family bought a couple of alligators for a pond on the property, and they used to wander into the kitchen, recalls Robin, the third of the family’s six children. “Every morning before school someone would call out, ‘Somebody go get the alligators!’ and catch them and put them back in the pond,” she says. “It was a fairytale house.”
But like many fairytale houses in the woods, it had a shadowy presence with a gruesome backstory. On Feb.19, 1968, William (“Billy”) Cokenower III, the 7-year-old son of the groundskeeper who lived on the property, was climbing in the concrete bird bath near the front door of the main house. “I could hear the thing wobbling,” says Carol Cokenower, Billy’s sister, who was 4 at the time and standing nearby. Per Cokenower, Billy lost his footing and grabbed the top of the structure, which fell on him and crushed his head. Fifty-four years later, the gurgling, and the thick smell of blood, are what she remembers most.
Robin, who was in third grade at the time and says she witnessed the accident through a window inside the house, tells a different story. “I saw the bird bath lift up in the air, move over, and just fall on his head,” she says. “I tried to scream but nothing was coming out.”
When the police arrived to investigate, Robin repeatedly told them the same thing: No, the bird bath didn’t tip over. It floated through the air.
The death was declared an accident, and the rest of the Cokenower family moved out shortly after. Robin, however, couldn’t shake the feeling that some presence was haunting the property. “There was something going on in that house,” she recalls. Her bedroom was right beneath the attic, and something, she says today, was dragging itself across the attic floor. Her mother and aunt repeatedly tried blessing the attic with holy water, but the sounds continued for much of her childhood.
The disturbances weren’t confined solely to the main house. Colin Santi, who lived on the grounds with his family in the ’80s while his father served as the latest in a long line of caretakers, recalls seeing a ghost in his bedroom one night and chasing it down the hall in his Batman Underoos. “Growing up on Rainbow Road was confusing and wonderful,” says Santi. “There was always a band playing somewhere on the property, and barbecues and wonderfulness — but there was always the presence. That place was crazy haunted.”
Swallowed by the woods
But it wasn’t ghosts that haunted the owner of the property. By the mid-’80s, his enormous real estate empire included everything from suburban shopping centers and country clubs to developments in Tennessee and Florida, but he was starting to face multiple legal issues. Following a divorce, the family vacated the property around 1986 — in typically enigmatic fashion. The family appeared to leave in a hurry, taking some furniture and valuables but leaving other items in the home with caregivers. The house still had forks in the kitchen drawers, pictures on the walls, and, said one visitor during this time, a creepy statue sitting by the fireplace of a goat-like creature with horns.
The property changed hands, the housesitters moved on, and the unoccupied house fell into limbo. Raised on tales about phantom sightings around the nearby White Cemetery, bored teenagers who had heard rumors about the house on Rainbow Road for years stepped into the void. Now, all they had to do was scale the white art deco wall and see for themselves. And see they did: Curiosity seekers gave way into larger groups of partiers and looters who set about vandalizing much of the property.
And, of course, some of the parties took a dark turn. Santi, who snuck into the basement with friends in the early ’90s, was stunned by what he found. “They’ve got pentagrams on the mirrors and stuff, Satan rituals with candles all over the place … beer cans and debris and paraphernalia,” he says. “In the bar, they smashed anything they could, and took the rest of it.”
Debaucherous tales of animal sacrifice and black magic within the walls of the decaying house may sound apocryphal, but neighbors weren’t taking any chances. Linda McGill, who runs an alpaca farm that started on Baby Face Nelson’s old property just off Cuba Road, recalls guarding her barn cats around Halloween from “people looking to do animal sacrifices.”
Over the years, the interlopers reported a strange sight around the property: a young boy clad in fire truck pajamas or blue jean overalls with a red shirt underneath. One of the superstitions that took hold was that anyone who drove down the long driveway at exactly 37 miles an hour would see the face of the dead boy. When Scott Markus, a paranormal investigator and author of the 2008 book Voices from the Chicago Grave, learned about the 1968 death of Billy Cokenower, he reached out to the family and relayed reports of the spirit. “I was shocked,” Carol Cokenower says. “My brother did wear overalls at the time.”In 1994, the federal government brought a criminal case against the patriarch of the departed family, alleging that he had bribed and defrauded the government to finance various suburban construction projects. He landed in prison for nine years on one count of racketeering and 14 counts of making false statements to banks and was forced to forfeit assets totaling $8.6 million.
The house on Rainbow Road sat mostly empty for more than a decade, slowly crumbling. Its once-gleaming swimming pool filled with slimy water. It was almost like the woods were swallowing the house back. Eventually it was offered up to the Lake Zurich Fire Department so firefighters could train with controlled burns. “It was in a state of disarray,” recalls Steve Rasmussen, a Barrington High alumnus who used to ride a four-wheeler on the property. “We heard these eerie sounds, maybe coming from a speaker intentionally. I’m not sure if someone was living in the house or there were speakers to scare us off.”
Another one of those kids, coincidentally, was Carol Cokenower, who passed more than one evening partying at the remains of the house — by that point just a shell of a basement — unaware that she had lived on the property more than 20 years earlier. “My mother never told us where everything happened,” she said.
But progress has a way of paving over history, and in 2004, a real estate developer named Tim Pattison put together a deal for the land. By then, the whole thing had become such a nuisance that the neighbors couldn’t take it anymore, particularly the resident to the south whose bedroom looked out onto the property. “He’d hear the cars and the kids and the music and the screaming because they’re scared in the middle of the night,” recalls Pattison, who graduated from Barrington High in 1983. “He was frustrated and wanted it done and gone.”
While Pattison waited to get started on a new subdivision, he spent Halloween on the property, shining a flashlight on trespassers and watching them scream and flee. The ones brave enough to stop and say hello got candy.
Eventually, he put in an alarm system, which meant constant calls to the authorities, reports Christopher Covelli, a deputy chief with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office. It’s worth noting that Covelli, who grew up in the area himself, recalls driving out to Rainbow Road with friends as a teenager and listening in the dark for the howls and screams they were told would come from the house. “We never did hear it,” he says, almost sadly.
By the mid-2000s, the legends surrounding the place had spread so far that Pattison had to field inquiries from a production company hoping to do “a paranormal study of the people who were murdered at the insane asylum there.” There is no record of an asylum there, or anywhere in the vicinity, says Kate Mills, the Barrington librarian. When the village saw how dilapidated the property had become, they had it demolished. All that remained was a silo and a barn; then one night, the barn burned to the ground. No one was ever charged with the crime.
Pattison took out the famous gates and put in a road in place of the long driveway (Kaitlins Way, named for his daughter), before selling off most of the property. Nothing was left of the house on Rainbow Road but stories.
Still, the Rainbow Road property haunts at least some of its former residents. Though Carol Cokenower lives nearby, she has no plans to return to the site of her childhood trauma. Neither does Robin. “There is a demon on that property,” Robin says. “And I swore I would never go back, because I don’t want to risk the demon inhabiting me.”
Others seem less concerned. Police still get calls about trespassers who, raised on third-hand yarns, have to see for themselves. “I think everybody wants to just believe that they are in proximity to something exceptional,” says Markus, the author. “That this isn’t just a normal little street, that there’s a hidden history that only we know and we can pass on.”
These days, a drive down the road is little more than a benign jaunt through a pristine, wooded suburbia. Migrating sandhill cranes laze about in the same pond where some people swear they encountered ghosts. Anyone hoping to catch a terrifying glimpse of a rotting house scrawled with pentagrams or a spectral boy in overalls instead gets a quiet cul-de-sac. If you didn’t know what really happened there, it would seem a lot like any other quiet cul-de-sac.
Thanks to everyone who responded to our call about hauntings, especially Colin Santi, whose ghost story started our reporting.
Jeff Ruby is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago.
JP Swenson, Samantha Callender and Cassie Walker Burke contributed reporting.