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Soldiers of Fortune – The Hesse Jewel Heist

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

When Nash did not appear by the appointed date, a military police squad paid an early morning visit to her sister’s home on June 2. Nash eluded them and made her way to Chicago, where she met up with Durant. The couple checked into the posh La Salle Hotel and, thinking they had outsmarted their pursuers, ordered champagne from room service. Just as they were popping the cork, however, a CID arrest team appeared at the door. Within minutes Nash was in handcuffs; her husband was taken into custody the following day.

Over the following weeks, CID agents searched the homes of Nash’s sisters, Durant’s brother James, and Roy Carlton in Texas, recovering a significant amount of the purloined Hesse treasure. While Carlton avoided arrest by agreeing to testify for the prosecution, Watson wasn’t so lucky—he was picked up in Frankfurt on June 7. In Illinois, Durant and Nash underwent polygraph examinations and separate but equally intense interrogations. Both ultimately admitted their complicity in the theft, and also implicated Watson and Carlton.

In an attempt to “cooperate” with investigators, Durant contacted the Chicago underworld figure to whom he had fenced more than half of the jewels mailed from Germany, though only a few small items were ultimately recovered. Asked by one interrogator how he’d gotten involved in “this mess,” Durant replied, “We thought it was simple looting—at the time it happened, everybody was carrying anything they could out of Germany and nothing was being done about it.”

While Durant’s brother and other civilians involved in the case—including Nash’s sisters and Martha Orwig Evans—escaped prosecution because they weren’t subject to military justice, the other three conspirators were not so fortunate. Over the following year Nash, Durant, and Watson were court-martialed separately in Germany on charges including larceny, dereliction of duty, and conduct unbecoming U.S. military officers. Each presented a variation of the same defense—in “liberating” the jewels they had only done what hundreds of thousands of other U.S. service members had done.

“The charges of my stealing the…Hesse…jewels are baseless,” Nash said. “If the court says I committed any of the criminal acts alleged, then thousands of people in this theater of war and in the United States are as guilty as I and have unclean hands.”

Watson, during his testimony, took a more legalistic tack: “We all felt [the jewels] were legitimate loot. The background of the possible owners was thoroughly discussed and [we] determined that they were either dead, SS members, or ardent Nazi sympathizers, and, as such, the properties would never be returned to them, no matter where or how they turned up.”

In the end, the conspirators’ attempt to defend the theft as no more than a legal and essentially routine confiscation of enemy property was to no avail. The prosecutor in Durant’s trial, Maj. Joseph S. Robinson, summed up the army’s position by saying, “It is our obligation to see to it that private property in enemy territory we occupy be respected, and that any interference with such private property for personal gains be justly punished.”

And punished they were: each of the “Hesse Three” was found guilty, cashiered from the service, and sent to federal prison. Watson was sentenced to 3 years, Nash got 5, and Durant 15.

While the imprisonment of the trio allowed the army to effectively close the case and publicly demonstrate the American government’s determination to prosecute military looters, the verdicts did little to help the aggrieved German clan. The jewels the army had managed to recover were not returned to the Hesses until 1951, and even then the removal of virtually all the gems from their original mountings had sharply reduced the collection’s aggregate value. Adding insult to injury, the army continued its occupation and use of Kronberg Castle until 1953, after which it was returned to the family, who converted it into an exclusive boutique hotel.

As for the conspirators, Watson was paroled in 1947 and died—still petitioning for a presidential pardon—in 1984. Nash and Durant were both released in 1952 and spent the remainder of their lives together; she died in 1983 and he in 1984, both apparently of alcohol-related illnesses. More than half of the jewels the trio pried from their settings—a trove worth some $16 million today—were never recovered.

Whether the gems remain buried along some rural Virginia road or have long since been recut and resold we will never know. It is interesting to note, however, that while Watson, Nash, and Durant lived relatively modest lives after leaving prison, upon his death in 1991, Durant’s brother James—who had spent most of his working life as a low-level city tax assessor in Falls Church and lived his final years in what his son called “near destitution”—left an estate valued at more than $1 million.

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