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1956: Unholy terror
By CHRIS BAUD / The Trentonian
In 1956, a devastating fire at St. Mary’s Cathedral on North Warren Street claimed the lives of three people and caused $3.5 million worth of damage.
The tragedy also set off one of the most complex and intriguing whodunit mysteries and courtroom dramas in Trenton history.
Along the way, there were six more church fires, a nine-month manhunt, a confession full of holes, a heroic priest, a communist copycat pyromaniac, changing mental diagnoses, and what one observer called a “sham” of a trial.
It all started during a heavy rainstorm in the early hours of March 14.
Twenty-five city and suburban firefighters battled 100-foot flames at St. Mary’s, which had stood as the seat of power for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Trenton since 1871.
The fire started in the first-floor reception room of the rectory at approximately 4:30 a.m., and quickly spread to the upper floors.
The Right Rev. Monsignor Richard T. Crean, and two housekeepers, Mary Louella Donnellan and Mary Brennan, were killed in the fire.
“I woke up at 4:30 in the morning from the sound of glass exploding,” said William Fitzgerald, now monsignor at Our Lady of Good Counsel on Upper Ferry Road.
“I went over to the door of my room, and I could see light under my door. I thought Monsignor Crean must have left the light on.
“The whole hall was full of flames.”
Fitzgerald tried to use the phone, but the lines were already burnt out. He next tried the intercom, but got no answer.
Finally, he decided he had to save himself.
“There was a back stairs going down to the kitchen in my room, and I went down that way, out to Chancery Lane. By the time I got around to the front on North Warren Street, they had taken Monsignor [Joseph] O’Connor to the hospital.”
O’Connor had jumped into a net raised by the firemen, but he landed feet first, fracturing his spine. He’s worn a brace ever since.
Two other priests, the Revs. Francis McGuinness and Pete Mooney, escaped with minor injuries.
Of the housemaids, only Vera Dizeins, who sat on an air conditioner facing North Warren Street, survived.
The boy of Crean, vicar general under Bishop George Ahr, wasn’t found until late in the day. He had died trying to reach the landing going up to the third floor.
Firemen believed Crean was overcome by smoke attempting to wake the priests and housemaids.
Bishop Ahr held services for Crean on Monday, March 19, at St. Anthony’s Church on South Olden Avenue. St. Mary’s would not reopen until 1958, but only the first Sunday’s service was missed, as the parish held Mass at the school’s gymnasium.
While the police questioned suspects, they had no real leads.
During a heavy rainstorm on the morning of Dec. 16, a Sunday, between 4 and 4:47 a.m., fires were set to four more city churches.
The first and by far the worst was a four-alarm at the First Methodist Church on South Broad Street. Damage to the oldest Methodist church in New Jersey was calculated at $300,000.
From there, the arsonist moved on to North Clinton and Hart avenues, lighting a small fire in the kitchen of the Church of the First Born Son of God. A Sunday school teacher opening the Church of the Open Bible at South Stockton and Front streets found a wall and door near the rear of the building had been burned.
The fourth attempt occurred just a block away at the State Street Methodist Church, where a parishioner discovered a burned chair and seat in the rear of the building.
Police immediately suspected a link to the St. Mary’s fire. Several conditions of the Dec. 16 fires matched the cathedral fire nine months earlier — all were set by gasoline from a bottle early in the morning under the cover of a heavy rain.
Police Chief James DiLouie ordered an all-out manhunt: Police made extra stops at places of worship, and the churches asked for volunteers to help tighten security.
A concerned citizen tipped police to a “suspicious” man seen climbing the fire escape at Trinity Lutheran Church. Police raced to the church on South Broad Street and discovered he was simply fixing burnt-out bulbs.
The churchgoing populace of Trenton was on the verge of panic.
Two days after the latest fires, 40-year-old Elber C. Lucas of Southard Street was brought in for questioning after being picked up for loitering near the scene of the fires.
Lucas confessed to setting all five fires. Described as a religious fanatic, he told police he had a “speaking relationship” with Monsignor Crean, and a newspaper clipping of the St. Mary’s fire with Crean’s picture on the front page was found in his home.
According to Mercer County Prosecutor Mario Volpe, the suspect split his time between a part-time bakery job and vagrancy. He spent time at his mother’s Southard Street address but also slept in empty lots and at the train station.
Volpe said Lucas “liked everyone and everybody liked him,” and claimed the suspect was “coherent” and “oriented.”
Lucas wept as Judge Albert Cooper ordered him held without bail on three murder charges and four counts of arson.
On Dec. 20, Lucas re-enacted setting the fires. In an apparent publicity stunt, Volpe ordered the demonstration filmed.
Citizens and police alike were shocked when two more fires were lit at city churches mere hours after Lucas’ re-enactment.
First, the firebug lit a blaze at Holy Ukrainian Trinity Church at Adeline and Liberty streets. He punched a hole in a window screen, broke a pane of glass, and tossed alcohol into the basement, which he then ignited.
The Rev. Michael Zaparyniuk, the 66-year-old pastor, discovered the blaze at 7:10 p.m., woke his wife in the rectory and told her to call the fire department. The firemen arrived quickly, but found the flames had already been extinguished by Zaparyniuk, who beat at them with heavy garments before anything more than a chair and table could be damaged.
Not satisfied with saving his beloved four-year-old church, Zaparyniuk set after the firestarter on foot, unaware the man had a .22-caliber revolver in his pocket.
When the pyromaniac dropped his gun and stopped to pick it up, Zaparyniuk nearly caught him. The suspect sped away in a black sedan, with the priest pounding on his window.
The mysterious man drove to Sts. Peter and Paul Church at Second and Cass streets about a mile away, and struck again. The church suffered $300,000 in damage.
Thanks to a description and partial license plate number provided by Zaparyniuk, police apprehended the suspect — 35-year-old unemployed factory worker Theodore Pravda — the following day.
Pravda, nee Johaness Boychuk, had changed his name just weeks earlier to the Russian word for “truth,” which happened to be the name of the Communist-controlled Soviet newspaper.
Pravda claimed to be the seemingly incongruous combination of communist sympathizer and neo-Nazi who hated religion and had a hit list that included 14 churches and City Hall.
According to Public Safety Director Andrew Duch, Pravda had no knowledge of the Sunday fires, “although two or three of the churches on his lists were burned by Lucas.”
Duch described Pravda, whose ultimate fate remains a mystery, as “the most depraved, wicked and cruel man I’ve ever met.”
Police Chief DiLouie insisted Pravda had no involvement in the St. Mary’s or the Dec. 16 fires.
“Those fires have no connection whatsoever,” DiLouie said. “I’ll stake my life on it.”
Lucas, meanwhile, was sent to Trenton State Hospital after Dr. J.B. Spradley labeled him mentally ill. After a month, officials called him “virtually hopelessly insane.”
This set the legal wheels in motion again, and Lucas was finally indicted by a grand jury in November 1957. The state hospital declared Lucas cured, thanks to tranquilizers, and in March 1958 Lucas was transferred to the Mercer County Jail.
On May 6, almost 16 months after his arrest and confession and two years after the fatal fire at St. Mary’s, the arson-murder case of Elber C. Lucas finally went to trial.
Eight days of testimony resulted in a shocking development: Almost nothing in Lucas’ confession could be corroborated by witnesses.
The defendant claimed to have slept at Hotel Penn the night before the St. Mary’s fire, but Lucas’ attorney, John E. Dimon, managed to get Detective Lt. Laurence Bloking to admit there was no record of Lucas spending the night there.
Lucas claimed to have bought the gasoline used in the fire from a gas station on North Warren Street, but the gas station attendant working the morning of the fire did not remember seeing him.
Lucas also said he stopped at the Perry Street bus terminal for a drink between 4 and 5 a.m., but a ticket agent told the court the terminal had been closed for cleaning.
According to an account in this newspaper, Bloking — whom Dimon called “the crux of the case” — appeared flushed under cross-examination, and did not bother to mention these holes in Lucas’ story in his report.
“We were convinced [Lucas] knew what he was talking about,” Bloking said on the witness stand.
Fire Chief Thomas Dovgala testified that his department found no evidence of arson at St. Mary’s. He added that Lucas could not have stooped over to ignite the gasoline, as he had recounted. The rising gas fumes would have exploded on contact.
A psych hospital doctor told the jury that Lucas, while a patient, claimed he was forced to sign a confession.
Day after day, Dimon trotted out witnesses who challenged parts of Lucas’ confession, which was the entire case. Dimon and First Assistant Prosecutor John J. Barry also argued over Lucas’ mental state at the time of his confession.
“Without the confession, we had nothing,” recalls Barry, who was prosecuting his first case. “We had some circumstantial evidence, but that’s it.”
Earl Josephson, who covered the trial for The Trentonian, believes Lucas was highly susceptible to the power of suggestion.
“Emil Slaboda [longtime Trentonian editor who was the paper’s ace cop reporter in 1956] once told me at the hospital, he confessed to everything.
“They asked him, ‘Did you assassinate Abraham Lincoln?’ and he said, ‘Yes.’ ”
After three hours of deliberation, the jury returned for a guilty verdict with a recommendation of mercy for Lucas.
Lucas himself never testified.
After the verdict, Barry said: “If he’s innocent, wouldn’t he be shouting it from the rooftops?”
Lucas received a life sentenced, but was spared the death penalty.
“I could not have conceived of [asking for the death penalty] considering his condition,” Barry said.
Guilty or not, Josephson thinks Lucas would have fared better under today’s legal system.
“I’m not a legal expert,” Josephson said, “but I would have thought they could have plea-bargained it out to something less today.
“What you have to understand is that this was before the ’60s, before the Warren Court, and before the whole revolution that took place in the justice system.
“What we’ve found out since then is an awful lot of people were put to death and spent time in prison that shouldn’t have been, and we’re still finding that out.”
Lucas would served 18 years before being paroled from Edna Mahan Prison in Clinton on Oct. 18, 1976. He died on June 18, 1979, at age 62.