Mistaken Identity Murder
By Lasca Randels
WINONA LAKE — In 1970, a man with ties to the Warsaw-Winona Lake area, was killed in St. Louis, Mo., when his automobile exploded in an apparent mob hit.
Phillip J. Lucier, who was president of Continental Telephone Corporation at the time of his death, was a 1938 Warsaw High School graduate. He was the son of the late Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Lucier of Winona Lake.
The magnitude of the tragedy came to light as more information was obtained, indicating 49-year-old Lucier was likely not the intended target of the car bomb.
July 24, 1970, was a hot, humid day in St. Louis. Lucier and two company vice-presidents, James Robb and James Napier, decided to have lunch at the St. Louis Club in the Clayton business district of suburban St. Louis.
Upon arriving at the parking lot, there were no empty parking spaces; however, Attorney Theodore Schwartz, who had an office nearby, was leaving in his vehicle, a black Lincoln. Lucier pulled into the spot that Schwartz had vacated.
Shortly after 1 p.m., Lucier, Robb, and Napier left the St. Louis Club and proceeded to Lucier’s vehicle, a black Cadillac. According to reports, Lucier opened the passenger side door and suggested that Robb and Napier wait outside while he started the air conditioner to cool the interior of the automobile.
The two men stood at the open door as Lucier got behind the wheel and started the vehicle.
There was a deafening blast and flames as the bomb, planted under the driver’s seat of the car, exploded.
Robb and Napier were launched backward to the ground but were not injured. Lucier, the father of 11, died instantly.
During the investigation into Lucier’s murder, the most widely accepted theory was that Lucier’s vehicle was mistaken for that of Schwartz, who reportedly was representing two swindlers who had scammed a man connected to the mafioso out of $150,000.
Despite the difference in models, both vehicles were black and had four-digit license plates.
Police spoke with a witness, a businessman who had been driving through the parking lot around 12:45 p.m. looking for an empty space to park. He observed a man sitting behind the wheel of Lucier’s black Cadillac. The door was slightly ajar and the man’s foot was dangling outside the vehicle. The witness stated that the man appeared to be working on something underneath the dashboard.
The witness said he assumed the man was waiting for someone and thought nothing of it.
After hearing about the explosion and seeing the remnants of the charred vehicle, he realized he had likely seen the person planting the bomb.
According to Lucier’s daughter, E’Louise Ondash, who was 24 years old when her father was murdered, there was a second theory regarding her father’s death, one that was not pursued.
This was related to integration and real estate endeavors Lucier was leading to ensure that the neighborhood was integrated and that middle class black families were welcome.
“There were a lot of people who didn’t like that idea and some real estate companies that were profiting off of white flight. My dad was spearheading a movement that would renovate homes and let black families purchase them and there was a lot of money to be lost by real estate people,” Ondash said in a 2023 interview with InkFreeNews, though she is inclined to believe the original theory is more likely.
“It kind of appears that this was a case of mistaken identity,” Ondash said. “I wouldn’t say it’s been absolutely confirmed, but it seems to be that. Most would say that.”
Lucier graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1942. He spent five years in the Navy before starting his career in the telephone industry.
During World War II, Lucier was cited for bravery and was one of the youngest lieutenant commanders commissioned in the U.S. Naval Reserve.
“He was a force in the community. He was a very kind person and his death had a huge ripple effect beyond our family. Many people that he helped or was working with were also greatly affected. He was also a role model for people who were my age at the time, young people who came to the company and saw him as a father figure,” Ondash said. “It was a tragedy that affected more than just our family. It really reverberated through the community at the time.”
No one was ever indicted for Lucier’s murder.