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A Tragic Mistake

A long time ago, I worked for a large telephone company. I know, that sounds about as interesting as being an accountant or watching paint dry. In this case though, it was a company that had a very colorful history which included a tragic incident in its past.

The company's story started in 1961 when a brilliant entrepreneur named Charles Wohlstetter raised $1.5 million and along with two partners formed a holding company, Telephone Communications Corporation.

Prior to this, Mr. Wohlstetter, who was born and educated in New York City, had other varied and rather successful careers. In 1929, at the age of 18, he graduated from what was then City College of New York and got a job as a runner at a small stock brokerage firm. He quickly exhibited his financial insight by predicting, to all who would listen, the stock market crash. Sure enough, few listened.

In 1938 he became restless and moved to Los Angeles to write screenplays. During the year he spent in Hollywood, he sold three of his screenplays, one of which was made into a low-budget film called "What Millionaire Playboy."

In 1939, he returned to New York where he organized a company to make aircraft parts for the Army. World War II brought the company plenty of business, and with the profits, Mr. Wohlstetter opened an investment banking company.

That company led to a $1.5 million investment in a small telephone company in Alaska and that investment started it all. Thirty years later, this original venture had grown into a company that had acquired and consolidated more than 750 smaller companies with total corporate assets hovering around $6 billion.

But the phenomenal growth and success was not without peril and hardship. In 1970 the company was now known as Continental Telephone Corporation had assets topping $1 billion, and sales volume had risen to $120 million. Aside from its dominating telephone business, the company's activities by that time had grown to include cable television systems, directory publishing, equipment leasing, and data services.

The president of the company at the time was Phillip J. Lucier, 49, one of Charles Wohlstetter's founding partners. Mr. Lucier an exemplary executive, a respected man in business, in his church and, the father of eleven children.

It was a hot, humid day in St. Louis on July 24th 1970 when Mr. Lucier and two company vice-presidents, James Robb and James Napier decided to have lunch at the St. Louis Club in the Calyton business district of suburban St. Louis.

According to Ronald J. Lawrence, reporter for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper at the time, it was 1:10pm when the three men left the St. Louis Club and proceeded to their car. Lucier opened the passenger side door and suggested that Robb and Napier wait while he started the air conditioner to cool the interior.

The two vice-presidents stood at the open door as Lucier sat behind the wheel, inserted the key in the ignition and turned it.

There was a burst of flame and a deafening explosion as a bomb, planted under the driver's seat of the car, exploded. Robb and Napier were thrown back and onto the ground from the energy of the blast and Philip J. Lucier, president of Continental Telephone Corporation and father of eleven, died instantly.

Nobody could even begin to comprehend how such a tragedy could befall the respected and well-liked head of a business as benign and main-street as a telephone company. At the time, St. Louis was known as the "Bomb Capital of the Country" but this was beyond the pale.

As more information came to hand, however, it started to look more like this terrible tragedy had been the result of an unbelievable set of circumstances that may have resulted in the 'mistaken' taking of an innocent life.

An hour earlier, when the three men had driven into the parking lot where the explosion took place, the lot was full of cars and there were no empty parking spots. Mr Lucier saw a car leaving and noticed a man he knew, Theodore F. Schwartz, an attorney who's office was nearby, was driving it. The two men waved at each other and Lucier parked in the spot Mr Schwartz had just Left. The attorney usually ate locally and almost never left in his car for lunch. But on this day, he did.

Both of the cars were black, both had a mobile telephone antenna and both had a four-digit license plate.

After the car was parked, the three men went into the restaurant. Another businessman looking for an empty space in the parking lot saw a man sitting behind the wheel of Lucier's black Cadillac. The door was open slightly and the man's foot dangled outside. Later, the businessman told investigators, "It looked like the man was working underneath the dashboard." After the businessman found a parking space, he walked past the Cadillac again and the man pulled his foot inside, shut the door and sat there.

Later, after hearing the explosion and seeing the remains of the destroyed car, the businessman realised he had actually seen the person planting the bomb.

Continental Telephone offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for Lucier's death and authorities interviewed hundreds of persons but no progress was made.

The same reporter mentioned above, Ronald J. Lawrence, found that the attorney whose parking spot Lucier took and whose car looked so similar to his was representing two swindlers in the St. Louis area. Apparently, the two miscreants had run a scam on a guy from New Orleans. It turned out the guy was a well-connected Mafioso. The two had upset the wrong people and were on the receiving end of the deadly fury of someone in the New Orleans Mafia.

In a series of interviews with the underworld characters involved, the reporter was told the story of how the New Orleans mark knew of the explosion almost immediately after it occurred and how he threatened the swindlers with more trouble if they did not pay him back the money they had scammed from him.

There was a litany of characters and schemes involved in this story, small time con men, phoney banks in the English channel islands and Panama, a scam against the city of New Orleans, syndicate bosses such as Anthony 'Tony G' Giordano, boss of the St. Louis Mafia and even New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison.

Names were given but there was never enough evidence to bring charges. As the reporter has said, "The murder, for all practical purposes is solved, but forever will remain un-prosecuted."

The incident made headlines for a few days but was soon forgotten by the general public. The company continued to grow and was eventually merged with GT&E to become the largest independent telephone company in the US.

In May, 1995 Charles Wohlstetter passed away. In his long career, he founded Atlas Aircraft (later Cyclohm Motor Corporation) and Continental Telephone, became a real-estate mogul and bought the Racquet Club in Palm Springs, California, and a large vineyard, complete with chateau and 600,000 bottles of vintage wine, in France.

He knew presidents, financiers and major figures in show business and the arts--including Carl Sandburg, George Gershwin, Dorothy Parker and Milton Berle.

It is truly amazing how, on a warm summer's day, such a story can arise out of middle America. It touched so many lives, involved so much intrigue and affected so many people from both sides of the social spectrum.

A detailed account of the newspaper articles published by Mr Lawrence concerning the incident can be found in the on-line site of Crime Magazine.

Comments received regarding the above article:
From Jim - As an ex-ITT type I just have to ask... How did you get to New Zealand?

WW to Jim: Jim, I blame it all on male menopause! In reality, my wife's Mother is a Kiwi; she married a US Marine who was stationed here during WWII. Mother-In-Law made the trip to the US to have her daughter (my wife) born in the US.
Years later, after my wife's father passed away, the Mother-in-law's New Zealand father was in ill health and my wife and I were relegated to Guam for at least a year, (working on a DOD contract for AE) so the Mother-in-law decided to return to NZ to live out her days.

Later still, we decided to turn a new page ... here we are. Mother-in-Law has sadly passed away but we are still here thirty-three years later.

From John Flynn - It's amazing how seemingly simple decisions like where to eat lunch can change lives. My grandfather, Alec Burrell, was Continental Telephone's first Director of Information, and worked closely with Mr. Lucier for the three years up to his untimely death. After Mr. Lucier's tragic murder, my grandfather wrote a book about Mr. Lucier, entitled "That's Phil . . . with two l's". I just got through reading his book again for the first time in about fifteen or twenty years.

WW to John Flynn - Thanks for the comment John, your Grandfather's book seems to be a collector's item now.

From Ray Smith in Illinois - Hi Wally, I'm writing my 40-year telephone career memoirs and Googled Phil Lucier and read your well-summarized story on his death. I knew the Luciers since I edited and published the industry's tech journal, Telephone Engineer & Management from 1964-1994. I also considered Alec Burrell a friend, altho our paths last crossed many years ago when I commented favorably in my 'Observations' column on his book ("That's Phil..With Two ls") and he thanked me since he'd told me that proceeds from the book would go to Lucier's scholarship fund at Notre Dame.

The copy I just pulled off the shelf was inscribed by him in July 1971 (wow): "To Ray Smith, an editor and true telephone man who admired Phil Lucier for his arrow straight answers on interviews from Continental's formative years till his untimely death. Warmest regards, Alec Burrell." He's right, a year before Lucier died I interviewed Lucier for a long cover story in TE&M in his wood paneled St. Louis office. When I commented on the decor, Phil grinned and said: "We try to make it look like 'old money."

Alec, who must have been 44 when Lucier was killed since his book says he was five years younger than Phil (I was 38 then) also told me he was going back then to be PR director for the St. Louis U Medical Center. I'd be interested in any sequel to his life and, if still alive, know how to contact. I'm 82+ and was inducted into the Telephone Hall of Fame in 2013 and currently chairman of the ITPA Hall of Fame Committee.

Interestingly, the last contact I had with a Lucier was with one of the sons living in AZ a few years ago who was then in the telephone business, a member of the Independent Telephone Pioneers of America, and we exchanged warm greetings.

Wally, I loved my two assignments in scenic NZ years ago. Spent 5 weeks driving and flying the country. Never was asked for a tip. Kiwis friendliest people/country among the 40 or so I've visited.

Warm regards,
Ray Smith


"Mr. Smith:
It was good to read that you knew my grandfather and considered him a friend. Unfortunately, Alec passed away in January, 2000 of a cerebral hemorrhage. 'Papa', as I called him, always remembered Phil and his years at Continental Telephone fondly. While I was born in 1975 and so have no personal recollections from this time, my understanding is that within about 6 months to a year after Phil died, Alec left Continental Telephone. He went into freelance writing and PR for the remainder of his career and did a lot of work for Catholic Charities of St. Louis and the St. Louis Foodbank, among other clients. I think my grandfather's career definitely took a different turn than it would have if Phil had lived. Phil was Alec's mentor to some degree and they worked closely at Continental and I think Alec was deeply affected by Phil's murder.

If you are so inclined, I would be happy to speak with you.

Best wishes,
John Flynn"

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John Flynn said:

It's amazing how seemingly simple decisions like where to eat lunch can change lives. My grandfather, Alec Burrell, was Continental Telephone's first Director of Information, and worked closely with Mr. Lucier for the three years up to his untimely death. After Mr. Lucier's tragic murder, my grandfather wrote a book about Mr. Lucier, entitled "That's Phil . . . with two l's". I just got through reading his book again for the first time in about fifteen or twenty years.


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