Murder by Mistake

Oct 10, 2009 - by Ronald J. Lawrence - 0 Comments

The car bomb that killed Philip J. Lucier – the president of the Continental Telephone Co. and the father of 11 children – was meant for an attorney whose clients had swindled a minor New Orleans Mafioso. The FBI misread and mishandled the case from the beginning. Subsequent federal investigations never produced a single indictment. Now, 30 yeas later, it seems certain no one will ever be charged in Lucier's tragic death.

 by Ronald J. Lawrence

"It never occurred to me to look closer. There was nothing suspicious."

- A witness

12:13 p. m. July 24, 1970 – Philip J. Lucier, president of Continental Telephone Corp., drove his black Cadillac into the parking lot of the Pierre Laclede Building, 7701 Forsyth Blvd., in the Clayton business district of suburban St. Louis. He and two telephone company vice-presidents, James Robb and James Napier, had decided on the spur of the moment to have lunch at the St. Louis Club. No one knew they were going there.

There were no empty spaces, but Lucier saw Theodore F. Schwartz, a respected attorney, back his black Lincoln Continental out of a parking stall. The two men knew each other and Schwartz waved to him. The lawyer, whose office was in the building, rarely left in his car for lunch, although this day he did.

The casual observer might not have noticed it, but, despite the difference in models, there was a similarity between Lucier's Cadillac and Schwartz' Lincoln. Not only were both black, each had a mobile telephone antenna and a four-digit license plate.

12:40 p. m. July 24, 1970 – A businessman drove slowly, looking for an empty space in the parking lot of the Pierre Laclede Building. Up ahead, he saw a man sitting behind the wheel of Lucier's black Cadillac. The door was open slightly and the man's foot dangled outside. It appeared as if he was working underneath the dashboard.

He recalled, "After a few minutes, I guessed the man was waiting for someone. Then, he looked back for a glance, pulled his foot inside, shut the door and sat there." The businessman found a space nearby. "I drove right behind the car, and then walked past it again to the building. It never occurred to me to look closer, there was nothing suspicious."

12:55 p. m. – Two men, one with light, almost blond hair, slender and short, entered the Leather Bottle at 7517 Forsyth, and sat at the bar. It was two blocks from the Pierre Laclede Building. Each ordered a beer. They were dressed casually in sport shirts and slacks. They said little to each other and when they did it was in inaudible whispers. Almost as if waiting for someone or something, they frequently glanced at their watches.

1:10 p. m. – Lucier, 49, and his two companions left the St. Louis Club and strolled to the parking lot. It was sweltering. As Lucier opened the door on the passenger side, he suggested that Robb and Napier wait while he started the air conditioner to cool the interior.

They stood at the open door. Lucier sat behind the wheel, inserted the key in the ignition and turned it.

The searing flash of flame and the deafening, violent burst of energy from the bomb under Lucier's seat ripped into his body. The civic leader and father of 11 children died in that instant.

Robb and Napier were hurled backward to the ground. Both were badly shaken, but uninjured. Had they been in the car, they surely would have been killed.

1:20 p. m. – At the Leather Bottle, no one heard the explosion. Ten minutes later, someone came in and announced the bombing. The quiet restaurant suddenly came alive with excited chatter. But the two men at the bar were stoic and said nothing. They left without finishing their beers.

1:45 p. m. – The businessman had heard the muffled explosion while in the St. Louis Club, but thought little of it. It wasn't until he saw the shell of what once was a car in the parking lot that he realized what had happened.

The disfigured body in the car was not that of the man he had seen earlier. The description he provided police was vague. The man who had been in Lucier's car was from 25 to 50 years old, had sandy brown hair and wore a dark business suit. He could not determine the man's size or any other distinguishing physical features and he said he doubted if he could identify the man positively.

Murder by bombing wasn't a rarity in St. Louis. It was a favorite weapon of hit men, mob connected and otherwise. Many men had died by bombing before Lucier and many would afterward. St. Louis had a dubious distinction of being the "Bomb Capital of the Country."

Explosive devices not only are meant to horribly mutilate and kill, but to send an unmistakable message. Worse, they can be indiscriminate in their capacity to kill. They make no distinction between innocent passersby and the intended victims.

The bomb that took Lucier's life was not that sophisticated. Investigators found a three-foot-long length of lamp wire they said was used to detonate it. Neatly soldered to one end was a small copper tube that had been inserted into the windshield wiper fuse box under the dashboard. The opposite end was attached to a metal pipe containing blasting powder. A second wire was grounded. The bomb was detonated when the ignition was activated.

Police said it would have taken only a few minutes to install the device. But what made it unique was that it was placed under the driver's seat. Bombs usually are attached under the hood or beneath the vehicle and often are detonated by remote control. One expert in bombings said that to his knowledge none like it had been used anywhere in the country.

Continental Telephone, the nation's third largest independent telephone company with a value of $1 billion, offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for Lucier's death. Authorities interviewed hundreds of persons, groping for substantial leads, but there were few. Lucier, an accomplished executive, was squeaky clean, had no known enemies and was a pillar in his church.

Investigators examined company financial records, but found nothing curious. In desperation, they pursued the possibility that Lucier had resisted efforts by organized crime to use the company's telephone facilities for a nationwide bookmaking operation. That theory, too, proved unsubstantiated.

The possibility of mistaken identity was ruled out. Clayton Chief of Police Michael M. Broser explained: "There were no other cars on the lot at the time resembling Lucier's. A lot of people with black Cadillacs were concerned, but the bomber would have caught up with the right person if Lucier had been the victim of mistaken identity.

The Big Scam

"The minute I saw Santo DiFatta, I said to my partner that I was going to take him. And we did just that, for $150,000 in cash."

One of the swindlers

Word of Lucier's tragic, violent death brought sudden panic to a group of swindlers in St. Louis. They weren't being paranoid. There was no doubt the bomb had been intended for one of them or, more likely, for their attorney, Schwartz. They knew what the police didn't: Lucier was dead because his car had been mistaken for Schwartz'. In scamming a Mafioso from New Orleans, the St. Louis swindlers had incurred the lethal wrath of the New Orleans Mafia.

The swindlers were part of the Bank of Sark scheme, one of the largest scams in the Western Hemisphere. Philip M. Wilson, described as a velvet-tongued genius, was the mastermind. He had created the fictitious Bank of Sark on the Isle of Sark in the English Channel. One of the most profitable schemes was the issuance of phony loan commitments from nonexistent lenders for which Wilson and his confederates received sizeable finders' fees.

In the spring of 1970, Santo J. DiFatta, a lower echelon Mafia operative in New Orleans, needed a $5.8 million loan commitment for a marina he proposed building on Lake Pontchartrain just outside New Orleans. He had obtained a temporary lease from the Orleans Parish Levee Board. But to acquire a permanent lease, he had to secure financing for the $5.8 million. A commitment for a loan in that amount from a financial institution was required.

DiFatta was a scam artist, himself. He had no intention of completing the marina. After the loan had been secured, he planned to default, keeping a good portion of the borrowed money for himself.

But DiFatta, who owned the New Orleans Coin Machine Co., a pinball operation, did not come highly recommended. Aaron M. Kohn, a former FBI agent and then managing director of the Metropolitan Crime Commission of New Orleans, informed the Levee Board about DiFatta. He wrote, " … for many years he has been, and continues to be, a principal figure in the pinball gambling aspect of organized crime" and "we consider the operation of the New Orleans Coin Machine … as organized crime."

By April, DiFatta was desperate. The temporary lease was about to expire and he had no commitment, real or phony, for financing the project. Legitimate lending institutions had closed their doors to him. He was told about two men in St. Louis who could broker the financing. They were Wilson's associates in the Bank of Sark.

The two swindlers, one a financial consultant, the other an accountant, were interviewed by this reporter in 1977 on the condition of anonymity. The accountant explained how the scam came down.

DiFatta was told that the loan commitment would be made through Tangible Risk Insurance Co. Ltd., of Montreal, another fictitious company created by Wilson. In return for arranging the commitment, the swindlers were to receive from DiFatta $150,000 in cash and two collateral notes totaling $110,000.

"We weren't going to get him a loan and we had no intention to," the accountant explained. "All DiFatta wanted was a document that would pass muster with the Levee Board. All we had to do was give him the mortgage papers. The papers said that if at the end of a certain period of time the marina did not work out, the Canadian company would reimburse the Levee Board for $5.8 million. It was that simple.

"The minute I saw Santo DiFatta, I said to my partner that I was going to take him. And we did just that, $150,000 in cash."

Deadly Reality

"I said, 'If this is a Mafia deal, let's get out. This is crazy'."

The financial consultant

On May 18, 1970, two months before Lucier was bombed, DiFatta gave the swindlers a $50,000 cashier's check as a partial payment on their finder's fee. A week later, he paid them the remaining $100,000 and the two collateral notes. It was a done deal.

The accountant and the financial consultant had dinner with DiFatta in a plush Clayton restaurant to celebrate closing of the deal. DiFatta brought his New Orleans attorney, George W. Gill, Jr. It was an evening full of good cheer. DiFatta was especially happy. He was about to make a sizeable sum of money. The swindlers had to conceal their glee at the scam they had pulled off.

Midway through the meal, Gill displayed a photograph from a Life magazine story of April 10, 1970, about organized crime in New Orleans. The photograph was of Carlos Marcello, the Mafia don in New Orleans, and Gill's father leaving a grand jury hearing. The father and son had represented mob figures for years.

The accountant recalled what happened next. "Gill asked, 'Do you know who my father is?' He didn't have to tell us. It was then we realized what kind of connections they had in New Orleans and who we were dealing with. We considered this a veiled warning."

The swindlers adjourned to the men's room. The financial consultant continued: "I said, 'If this is a Mafia deal, let's get out. This is crazy'."

They faced an enormous dilemma. They had sent Wilson, who had moved the base of his Bank of Sark operations to Miami, $100,00 of DiFatta's money. Wilson had made it clear that none of the money would be returned. They dared not cross him. He had some pretty awesome associates, such as the brutal enforcer and hit man Jimmy Boyd, whose reputations for violence were not undeserved. On the other hand, scamming DiFatta would generate an even more ominous wrath. The swindlers knew that underworld protocol would have required DiFatta to obtain Marcello's approval to engage in a scam of that magnitude. That meant that the boss would have been a silent, but powerful and unforgiving partner who would share in the profits. And, they realized, some of the money DiFatta lost to them might have come from Marcello.

When the two returned from the bathroom, they floated a ploy. They had not yet given DiFatta the commitment documents so they asked Gill as tactfully as they could if the deal could be rescinded. He emphatically refused. "We decided we were just going to wash our hands of Santo DiFatta," the accountant said. We just stalled him about the papers, hoping things would work out."

DiFatta Wises Up

"I wanted to get a gun and go up there and kill those three guys. But I thought, what the hell, I got a wife."

Santo DiFatta

The commitment documents that were finally delivered to DiFatta seemed legitimate enough, but something about them worried him. He fretted and soon began suspecting that he had been taken. (DiFatta was interviewed by this reporter in New Orleans in 1977. He had bank records and other documents to prove his payments to the swindlers.)

In July 1970, only days before the Lucier bombing, DiFatta said he and Gill flew to Montreal to check out Tangible Risk Insurance Co. What they found only confirmed his worst suspicions. The address of the company was a one-room office with an answering service.

The New Orleans Mafioso was furious. "Listen, nights I couldn't sleep," he told this reporter. "I got my belly full. It would bother me. I wanted to get a gun and go up there and kill those three guys." But DiFatta was a family man at heart. "But I thought, what the hell, I got a wife."

DiFatta tried heavy-handed negotiations for the return of his money. He met with Schwartz, who represented the swindlers only in criminal matters. The lawyer said there was little he could do. According to Schwartz, DiFatta shouted at him that "someone in their families could get hurt."

The financial consultant was the first of the swindlers to learn of Lucier's murder. His office also was in the Pierre Laclede Building. Within an hour or so after the explosion, DiFatta called him. "He said that the bomb had been meant for someone involved in the swindle and demanded return of the cash and the $110,000 in collateral notes. I assumed he was calling from St. Louis. I believed him."

Panic turned to sheer terror for the financial consultant and the accountant. They had no idea where DiFatta was and what else he had planned. There appeared to be only one source of help – the FBI. They met secretly the next day in Forest Park with Special Agent Howard Kennedy. They described the DiFatta swindle and his threats and told the agent that the bomb was meant for Schwartz.

Kennedy told them he would look into it. But the information was suppressed. Apparently, it was a matter of conflicting interests for the FBI: helping solve the Lucier bombing or preserving the investigation of the Bank of Sark frauds. (Other federal investigators later speculated to this reporter that the FBI chose to pursue Wilson and his confederates. To reveal the possible motive behind the bombing might have jeopardized that investigation.)

The talk with Kennedy did little to assuage the two swindlers' fear of terrible retribution from DiFatta. They and Schwartz armed themselves and installed burglar alarms in their cars. Schwartz also had his "hot-wired" to immediately detonate any explosive that was attached to the wiring. A few days before the bombing, someone had attempted to break into his Lincoln Continental parked in front of his home.

Three days after the bombing, the swindlers returned the $110,000 in collateral note to DiFatta, but not the $150,000 he had paid them. It was the least – or, perhaps, the most – they could do for him. It didn't appease the New Orleans gangster. The accountant said, "He told us the same thing could happen to you."

On Aug. 20, DiFatta and another of his attorneys, David Levy, met with the two swindlers and Schwartz. DiFatta also was accompanied by a private investigator he had retained "to play it safe." Levy read a prepared statement demanding payment of the $150,000 in six hours. DiFatta's family was suffering from the loss, he said, and concluded: "Mr. DiFatta does not like to see his family hurt, so I am sure you would not like to see your family hurt, if you have any."

DiFatta went from there to the office of the U.S. Attorney Daniel Bartlett Jr. DiFatta wanted the full weight of the government behind his effort to collect what was owed him. Kenneth R. Heineman, an assistant who attended the meeting, said DiFatta was told the office was not a collection agency.

"He was mad as hell," Heineman said. "He said, 'We'll take care of it ourselves'."

It was DiFatta's last overt attempt in St. Louis to collect the money. It might have been because of Anthony "Tony G." Giordano, boss of the St. Louis Mafia, interceded. He had become concerned with the direction the bombing investigation was taking. It was at a time when it was disclosed that federal investigators were exploring the possibility that Lucier was killed because he had resisted the mob's efforts to use his company for the illegal race wire service.

Apparently aware of the DiFatta swindle, Giordano asked Marcello to intercede to prevent further violence in St. Louis. Giordano is said to have complained that "there's too much heat already."

DiFatta's fortunes continued to decline. Despite whatever admonition he might have been given by Marcello, in his unabated thirst for revenge he became his own worst enemy. On May 28, 1971, he made what he told this reporter was a "terrible mistake." He again sought help from the law.

He asked Pershing Gervais, an investigator for New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, to extradite the swindlers there. "I thought with this kind of pressure, I could get my money back."

It was, indeed, a colossal error of judgment. Gervais was an undercover informant for the federal government and was helping build a case against Garrison and others for accepting bribes to protect gambling. Gervais secretly taped DiFatta's conversation.

DiFatta was indicted by a federal grand jury on interstate racketeering charges in connection with his illegal pinball machine operation. He pleaded guilty and was placed on two years' probation. In 1973, he testified at Garrison's trial that he had paid the prosecutor $100 a week to protect his gambling operation. Now, not only was he a loser, but a snitch as well.

DiFatta never stopped denying involvement in the bombing. The younger Gill gave him an alibi. He showed this reporter a typed time sheet indicating that from 10 a. m. until 12:20 p.m. the day of the bombing DiFatta was in his office in New Orleans. However, he couldn't explain how his client had learned so quickly of the bombing in St. Louis.

Ironically, Wilson was arrested the day Lucier died on federal fraud charges arising from the Bank of Sark and other swindles. He eventually was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Wilson could have prevented Lucier's death were it not for the inherent greed of a swindler. Interviewed by this reporter in 1977, Wilson said that although there were sufficient funds to reimburse DiFatta, "there never was any conversation about giving the money back to him. He was going to rip off the City of New Orleans for a couple of million dollars. We did New Orleans a favor."

A Confession Of Sorts

"Who knows, maybe the bomb was meant for me."

James W. "Jimmy" Boyd

James W. "Jimmy" Boyd was an enigma, a man of contradictions. A master of treachery, he ran with the toughest, meanest thugs in the St. Louis underworld and continually perpetuated his image as a ruthless hit man with expertise in bombs. He once boasted that he often had been asked to take murder contracts. In June 1968, he was arrested when police found an automatic pistol, a carbine and six sticks of dynamite in his car. Three weeks earlier he had been pardoned by the Missouri Gov. Warren Hearnes on a murder conviction in the shooting death of a used car salesman.

Yet, physically, Boyd didn't fit the image of a tough guy. He barely stood 5 feet, 7 inches tall and was skinny. His blond hair projected a schoolteacher image, while his cold, intense eyes betrayed his treachery. What Boyd lacked in size he made up for with bravado.

Thus it was with surprise when law enforcement officials in November 1972 listened to Boyd confess that he had made the bomb that killed Lucier.

Boyd had been arrested on a federal charge of transporting a stolen automobile across state lines. While in custody, he said he and Louis Shoulders Jr., a notorious hoodlum who was the son of a former St. Louis police lieutenant and who figured in the disposal of the missing Greenlease kidnapping ransom money years earlier, had constructed the bomb. Shoulders was killed three months earlier in a bombing and Boyd was a suspect.

Boyd refused to identify for whom he had made the Lucier bomb. His description of the explosive device was accurate in details. But, then, it had been described in newspaper accounts shortly after the bombing. He said he also had cased the parking lot of the Pierre Laclede "so when the man came in he knew what it was all about."

Police didn't know at the time that Boyd had been familiar with the parking lot because he often visited the offices of the financial consultant and Schwartz in the building. The officer asked him if the intended victim, whom Boyd had not identified, had an assigned space on the lot. Boyd responded that he had not. But authorities also weren't aware then that Schwartz was the intended victim and in fact he had no regularly assigned space.

Authorities believed Boyd's confession merely was an attempt to gain leniency in the auto theft charge. They surmised he knew that his admission could not be used against him without supporting evidence. And they had none.

Several days later Boyd jumped bail and disappeared. He is said to have told friends he feared for his life. In his statement, he had given police a hint. "Maybe they're going to kill me, too," he had said.

There was much authorities didn't know then about Boyd. Wilson told this reporter in 1977 that after the Bank of Sark was exposed, he created Normandy Bank, another phony financial institution in Panama which also sold fraudulent loan commitments and bank drafts. He had supplied Boyd with a new identity, including a forged Haitian passport. Boyd operated the scam in 1971. In his confession, Boyd had told authorities he had been in Central America during those years.

Wilson said he first met Boyd in the mid-1960s and took him on as his bodyguard and "muscle man," who collected money owed the swindlers. "If people owed us money, he collected. He never beat them up, but he put the fear of God in people. He always collected."

With the Bank of Sark collapsing around him and under indictment, Wilson assessed his situation. He suspected that several lower echelon associates, including the printer who had prepared the phony documents, had turned state's evidence. He sent Boyd "around the world" to find them. Wilson said he instructed him to kill them if he determined that they were informants. Boyd found only one, the printer in St. Louis. He told Wilson the man was insane. "We decided to give him a walk," Wilson recalled. "We felt sorry for him."

Wilson later would learn that his trusted enforcer had been a government snitch and had helped build the case against him in the scams.

It helped explain why Boyd had become a fugitive and had fled to Hawaii, where he remained until August 1976 when he was arrested and extradited to Missouri on the federal auto theft charge. It subsequently was dismissed. He pleaded guilty of jumping bail and was given a suspended sentence after he told the court his life had been threatened. Deputy U.S. marshals escorted him to the airport for his return flight to Hawaii.

They weren't aware that Boyd also had jumped bail after being sentenced in St. Louis County to three years in the Missouri State Penitentiary for carrying a concealed weapon. Boyd again was returned to Missouri and sent to prison.

Boyd was interviewed while in prison by this reporter in 1977. He said he had lied in his confession about making the Lucier bomb as a diversionary tactic in the stolen car case. "I just wanted to get them (authorities) off my back and get back out on the streets."

But he said he had another, more compelling reason. In 1970, he had become a paid informant for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service on international frauds. "It was part of the image I was creating that I was a hit man," he explained. "I was paid by the government to say that. You can't infiltrate the Mafia if you're Mr. Nice Guy."

The Postal Inspection Service denied Boyd had been told to use this cover or to infiltrate the Mafia. He proved to be worthless as a snitch and did little to earn his $150-a-week fee.

Boyd did admit being on the parking lot shortly before Lucier was killed because he had visited an attorney in the Pierre Laclede Building. And he said he had an alibi. At the time of the bombing, he was having lunch with another of his attorneys a few blocks away. The lawyer seven years later confirmed the lunch, but said Boyd had named the wrong restaurant.

Boyd tried to add a new dimension to the Lucier murder. He speculated the bomb might have been meant for him. Until a week before the bombing, he, like Lucier, had driven a black Cadillac with a four-digit license plate and a mobile telephone antenna.

"Who knows, maybe the bomb was meant for me," Boyd said nonchalantly.

Authorities could not confirm that he once drove such a car and suspected it was another red herring.

Positive Identification

"You just had a feeling … that they were involved in something, hired men, if you know what I mean."

The witness in the Leather Bottle Three months after the Lucier bombing, investigators were searching desperately for any lead that might help them identify the bomber. What few possibilities they had at the start had washed out. They were at a dead end.

There was only one real witness, the businessman who had seen the bomber in Lucier's car. But his description was so vague it virtually was useless. It was decided to place him under hypnosis. A medical doctor who was a specialist in memory recall assured investigators that whatever is seen is recorded in the subconscious mind permanently and that proper hypnosis can dredge up any memory.

The businessman was able to recall in detail the description of the man in the car. From that, an artist's sketch was made. Still, investigators were no closer to identifying a suspect. Although the sketch bore some resemblance to DiFatta, they really didn't know for whom they were looking.

In autumn of 1975, the federal Organized Crime Strike Force in St. Louis and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms reopened the Lucier bombing case when they learned of statements the two swindlers had given to Special Agent Kennedy.

On Oct. 2, 1975, the businessman witness was brought before a federal grand jury. Prior to testifying, he was placed in a room with numerous other men, including DiFatta. The businessman knew none of the men in the room. After a few minutes, the businessman left the room. He was emphatic. The man he had seen in Lucier's car was one of the men in the room. The man he identified was DiFatta. "There was no doubt in his mind as to this identification," a source said.

But it was too late. The five-year federal statute of limitations for explosives violations had expired.

Two years later, two witnesses in the Leather Bottle talked about the two men to this reporter. One had seen only their backs. The other, a bartender, had seen their faces. After seven years, they still were etched in the bartender's memory.

"They were wild looking men," he recalled. "They didn't talk. You just had a feeling from the way they acted and the way they looked that they were involved in something, hired men, if you know what I mean."

He was shown a number of mug shots. With little hesitation, he picked out Boyd's. He was one of the men at the bar that day. "I remember those mean looking eyes," he said. The other man remained unidentified.

The witness said he had reported this to police. But no report ever was made.

With its inability to prosecute because of the statute of limitations, government attorneys offered their services to St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Courtney Goodman Jr. There is no state statute of limitations for murder. They told him there was a 50-50 chance DiFatta and maybe even Boyd would be convicted.

Goodman, who has since died, declined. He would not go into court with odds like that. "I need more hard evidence," he explained.

Thirty years later, the murder for all practical purposes is solved, but forever will remain unprosecuted.

Epilogue

This article is adapted from a number of stories the author wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch following a two-month investigation in 1977.

DiFatta died a number of years ago in New Orleans. It is said that even on his deathbed he refused to discuss the bombing and still wanted his money back.

Boyd's whereabouts are unknown. He may have returned to Hawaii, where he had a wife and child. He told the author that he had become a Christian there after seeing a "brilliant white light unfolding in front of me."

Wilson is believed to be living somewhere in Florida.

The accountant, who served less than a year for his part in the swindles, remains in the St. Louis area.

The financial adviser, who also was in prison for less than a year, died several years ago.

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