Elliott: Telephone exchange firebombing was distraction for grocery store robbery

The March 31, 1973, firebombing of the Soddy-Daisy phone exchange facilitated a robbery at the local Red Food Store. (Photo courtesy of Steve Smith)

Many older residents of Soddy-Daisy remember the months in 1973 and 1974 when their telephone prefix temporarily switched from "332" to "843." This phenomenon occurred as a result of a spectacular crime on the evening of March 31, 1973.

For many years before March 31, 1973, the phone exchange serving Soddy and Daisy, which in 1969 became Soddy-Daisy, was located on Walden Street in Daisy. It was an innocuous white painted wooden building which had been added on to several times as the community's needs grew.

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At about 8:45 that evening, the old building was torched. Fuel was spread on the floor of the structure, and when ignited, the fumes that had spread within exploded, knocking down several walls and collapsing the roof. The front wall of the building was actually propelled out into the middle of Walden Street. Firefighters were not far away, but response time was affected by the loss of communications, and it turned out that the nearest hydrant was inoperable. The Soddy-Daisy Fire Department concluded the structure could not be saved and focused on keeping the fire from spreading. It took four or five hours of effort and more than 4,300 gallons of water to contain and eventually extinguish the blaze.

Less than 15 minutes after the fire started, four men disguised by Halloween masks and armed with carbines stormed through the entrance of the Red Food Store at 9358 Dayton Pike, roughing up the manager and stealing the contents of the store's safe and four cash drawers, amounting to "a bundle of cash." Thinking the robbery was a prank, one of the store's employees barely escaped serious injury when he attempted to unmask one of the robbers. The group got away in a car that was discovered three hours later burning behind a church on the south end of town.

The enormity of the loss to South Central Bell - the largest single loss experienced by the company to that point in time - brought about an intense investigation, with the phone company offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the arsonists. Almost 40 investigators were involved, including South Central Bell security agents and state and local law enforcement officers. The destruction of the building knocked out the Soddy-Daisy Police's main radio, which used the phone cables. The police chief was initially quoted that he felt that the two incidents were not connected, but it was soon concluded that the two crimes were indeed part of a single conspiracy. The distraction of emergency services during the robbery was an intended consequence of the fire.

In terms of significant fire loss, the destruction of the phone exchange was the most extensive in Soddy-Daisy history. The exchange served more than 5,000 customers, and long-distance service was temporarily disrupted, even in outlying communities. Service for emergency and government users was quickly restored, and free phone lines were made available for the public at two public locations in Soddy-Daisy and at several locations along Highway 27. Soon thereafter, home service was restored using the Middle Valley exchange, which required the use of the 843 prefix rather than Soddy-Daisy's familiar 332.

The intense investigation soon brought results, with the first arrests taking place on April 18, 1973. Larry Leon Parker, a former Chattanooga policeman, and Jackie Renner Robinson, a convicted felon, were taken into custody. The newspapers at the time reported on the pair's extensive and violent criminal history. Unfortunately, Robinson was not in jail on July 31, 1974, when Chattanooga dentist Robert P. Elliott was kidnapped from his Hixson home and murdered. Robinson was one of two men later convicted of that crime, and eventually died in prison.

A new phone exchange building was built on Dayton Pike in Soddy-Daisy less than a mile from the former location, and still serves the community today. The new exchange opened in the summer of 1974, and the honor of the first call was given to Soddy-Daisy Mayor Gene Elliott, who incidentally was Dr. Elliott's first cousin. The mayor was given the option of calling anywhere in the United States. He called his own home.

Local attorney and historian Sam D. Elliott was the recipient of the first phone call on the new Soddy-Daisy system. He is a member and former chairman of the Tennessee Historical Commission and a former president of the Chattanooga and Tennessee Bar associations. For more visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.