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Soldiers of Fortune – The Hesse Jewel Heist

By Stephen Harding
3/25/2009 • World War II

Before the CID could begin unraveling the case, however, Nash left Germany, and Durant and Watson moved the remaining few pieces of the trove out of the country. Days after Nash’s departure, Durant traveled to England to meet his former Pentagon secretary, Martha Orwig Evans. A United Nations employee at the time, she agreed to carry several pieces of jewelry to the States. In early March, Durant himself left for a week’s temporary duty in Washington and 30 days of home leave, traveling on courier orders that prevented customs inspection of his baggage. Following Durant’s departure, Watson made another trip to Belfast, where he sold the remaining scrap gold and several other items.

The Frankfurt CID office opened its official inquiry into the Hesse jewel case during the third week of April 1946, and the investigation quickly took on a life of its own. Agents interviewed virtually every member of the Hesse clan and all of Kronberg Castle’s German employees, as well as scores of American military and civilian personnel who had worked or stayed at the facility. Investigators poured over mailroom records pertaining to shipments to the States made by Nash, Durant, Watson, and Carlton, and traveled to Switzerland and Northern Ireland to track down and recover those items the conspirators had sold. While they ultimately retrieved all of the items Watson had sold or given away in Belfast, Switzerland’s notoriously secretive financial laws prevented the recovery of all but a few minor pieces there.

CID agents also began tracking Watson’s movements, an easy task given that he remained in Frankfurt. His fellow conspirators were another matter, however: Nash was in California awaiting release from active duty, Carlton was out of the army and living in Texas, and Durant had completed his temporary duty in Washington and was on leave somewhere on the East Coast. The obvious answer was to take the investigation across the Atlantic; accordingly, the CID authorities in Germany contacted their compatriots in Washington. Though the conspirators didn’t realize it, the noose was beginning to tighten.

lmost immediately after arriving in the United States on March 12, Durant set about hiding or trying to sell all the jewels he had managed to send from Europe.

On at least two occasions he and his brother James—the recipient of most of the packages Durant had mailed—buried large glass jars filled with jewels and cash along Route 7 near James’s home in Falls Church, Virginia. Durant sold gems to several private individuals, pawned other items, and, using a false name, sold several stones to a large Washington jewelry store. He even managed to use one particularly nice diamond as partial payment for a new Hudson convertible.

The car soon got a major road test, for during the last week of March Durant drove to Chicago, where Nash joined him a few days later. Through a friend of Durant’s, the couple met a jeweler who agreed to buy 70 loose diamonds Durant said he’d bought “on the cheap” in Europe. But the jeweler nixed the deal when Durant couldn’t produce customs documents for the gems, and later called the Chicago Police to report the incident. The police, in turn, notified the U.S. Customs Service.

Things quickly went downhill for the conspirators. In response to a call from a customs agent Durant surrendered 102 loose diamonds he said he had obtained legally in Germany but had “forgotten” to declare. The errant colonel then forged a set of orders authorizing his separation from active duty in the apparent belief that he could avoid military punishment if and when the jewel theft came to light. During a meeting with Evans, his former secretary, to pick up the booty she had carried back from England, she asked him if the jewels might get him into trouble. “Get into trouble?” he tersely responded. “I’m already up to my neck in it now.”

Nonetheless, Durant and Nash announced their intention to marry during a dinner in Chicago on May 26, 1946, and did so two days later in a Chicago courthouse. They left that afternoon for Nash’s sister’s house in Hudson, Wisconsin. But the CID had by then canceled Nash’s separation orders. A telegram awaited her at her sister’s, directing her to report to Fort Sheridan, Illinois, on May 29 or face charges of being absent without leave. Several days later, similar orders were issued canceling Durant’s leave and ordering him to Fort Sheridan.

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