A thief or thieves murder messenger and hijack pearls from REA Express at Sea-Tac Airport on December 22, 1969.

  • By Daryl C. McClary
  • Posted 11/25/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7926
On December 22, 1969, 300 pounds of raw pearls from Japan are hijacked from REA Express at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and the messenger, Carlyle J. Aicher, age 51, is murdered. More than a year later, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, responsible for investigating thefts from interstate shipments, will arrest and prosecute Harry E. Chard, a former REA Express messenger, for possession and transportation of the stolen pearls, for which he is sentenced to 30 years in federal prison. Most of the pearls are recovered during a police undercover operation in Vancouver, Canada, a year later, but the robbery and murder of Carlyle Aicher remains unsolved.

Precious Cargo

REA Express routinely handled shipments of uncut gems and pearls shipped from Japan on Northwest Orient Airlines (NWA). Express messengers routinely drove the shipments from the airport to the U. S. Customs House, in downtown Seattle, for appraisal. Once a shipment cleared customs, it was returned to the airport and eventually placed on a NWA flight to New York. In the interim, the shipment was locked in a cage used to store high-value and in-bond merchandise, at the REA Express office in the air-freight terminal.

On Monday, December 22, 1969, Carlyle John Aicher (1918-1969) was working at the REA Express office at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, as the relief-man for the regular messenger who had Monday nights off. At 8:45 p.m., Aicher picked up the keys to an REA Express van in order to deliver 18 boxes of raw Japanese pearls, weighing approximately 300 pounds, to a NWA plane scheduled to depart for New York at 10:30 p.m. But, at some point during the one-mile journey, which was entirely within airport boundaries and congested with people and traffic, Aicher and the REA Express van disappeared.

Missing Person and Pearls

At 6:30 a.m. the following morning, REA Express officials finally notified the King County Sheriff’s Department that Aicher was missing, along with a large shipment of raw pearls with a retail value of $250,000. At 7:00 a.m., a driver for Emery Air Freight noticed the REA Express van parked in the employee’s lot behind the Hyatt House Hotel, 17001 Pacific Highway S, and notified REA Express. Airport police officer Elmo Williams and REA Express employee Wilfred Collins went to the parking lot and found the body of a man, with blood on his face and chest, sitting in the driver’s seat of the locked vehicle.

Officer Williams broke into the van and discovered that the 18 boxes of pearls, along with a briefcase containing the shipping and customs document, had been stolen. Collins identified the body as Carlyle Aicher, the missing express messenger. The subsequent autopsy showed that Aicher had been shot once in the face and twice in the chest with a .45-caliber pistol at close range.

King County Chief of Detectives Thomas M. Nault, whose office was responsible for investigating the robbery and murder, assigned 10 detectives to the case. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was also called in because theft from interstate shipments is a federal crime.

The Investigation

The initial investigation turned up few solid leads. Apparently no one had heard any gunshots. However a Hyatt House employee had noticed the green REA Express van in the employee’s parking lot at about 12:20 a.m. Witnesses reported seeing a two-tone, late-model Cadillac speeding away from the area, earlier that evening. Aicher’s wife, Eleanor, told detectives that Carlyle never carried a gun, claiming that he wouldn’t resist a robbery, so whoever shot him was probably someone he could identify.

Investigators concentrated on finding the pearl’s containers, which they thought the hijackers would discard immediately. Local newspapers and TV stations asked the public to be on the lookout for 18 wooden boxes, varying in size from six inches square to the size of a “case of beer,” addressed to firms in New York and each stamped “Duty Paid.”

Meanwhile, investigators received information from several persons about a possible suspect who had worked at the air-freight terminal from time to time as a relief driver for REA Express, and owned a two-tone, late-model Cadillac. At 4:35 a.m. on Thursday, December 25, 1969, King County Sheriff’s detectives and FBI agents served a search warrant at a house in Kenmore. Although the pearls or boxes weren’t found, they arrested Harry Emery Chard, age 30, as a suspect and seized four handguns for ballistics testing. When comparisons with the bullets taken from Aicher’s body proved negative, Chard was released from custody for lack of evidence.

The search for evidence in the Aicher case continued for over a year without success. In the interim, Chard was indicted by a federal grand jury on two counts of possessing 23 small gold bars, valued at $11,000, stolen from REA Express interstate shipments in 1967 and 1968. He was released on $3,000 bail and trial was scheduled for March 15, 1971, in U.S. District Court, Seattle.

But on Monday, February 15, 1971, police in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, seized two steamer trunks containing numerous bags of raw pearls, which were quickly identified as those stolen from REA Express in December 1969. Two Canadian businessmen were charged with possession of stolen property: Eugene Killam, age 30, and Barry Ehrl, age 32. Four days later, on February 19, FBI agents arrested Harry Chard for knowingly possessing property stolen from an interstate shipment. Shortly thereafter, a federal grand jury re-indicted Chard on five counts of possession and transportation of property stolen from interstate shipments, which included the raw Japanese pearls as well as the 23 gold bars. Trial was rescheduled for May 10, 1971, before U.S. District Court Judge William N. Goodwin.

Chard's Trial and Conviction

After jury selection and opening arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Charles Pinnell and Bruce Carter called two witnesses who testified that Chard worked for REA Express as a “relief relay driver” in 1967/1968, and that, on numerous occasions, he transported shipments of gold, gemstones, and pearls, which arrived every Monday and Thursday from Japan, between the U.S. Customs appraisers office and the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. They presented testimony showing that Chard stole two shipments of gold bars from REA Express which he later sold, through a Canadian attorney, to a bank in Lucerne, Switzerland, for $9,000. Then the prosecution proceeded to the charges relating to the purloined pearls.

Defense attorney Anthony Savage (1931-2012) attempted to exclude prejudicial testimony relating to the robbery and murder of Carlyle Aicher since Chard had not been charged with these crimes (murder, except of a government employee or witness, is not a federal crime). But Judge Goodwin allowed the testimony stating: “The government is obliged to show how the pearls were stolen” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).

The prosecution then introduced a series of witnesses tracing the pearls from their arrival at the airport to the Customs appraisers office and back to the airport. Other witnesses testified about the pearls’ disappearance and then finding the empty express van and Aicher’s body. A long-time friend of Chard testified that Chard told him, the day after it happened, he knew who shot Aicher, but claimed he had nothing to do with the heist.

The prosecution introduced several witnesses from Canada who told the jury how the stolen pearls were found. Arthur Sereth, a Vancouver pearl dealer, testified that he was contacted by Martin Chambers, a Vancouver attorney, who told him he could purchase $300,000 worth of raw Oriental pearls for approximately one third their retail value. Sereth was suspicious and contacted the Vancouver Crime Intelligence Unit, a task force of Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and Vancouver police officers.

Sereth testified that on January 22, 1971, Chard and Chambers came to his private office to discuss the offer and delivered 15 loose pearls, 12 white and three blue, as samples. Chard claimed that his father had accumulated the stash of pearls over a period of years, which Sereth regarded as “inconceivable.” After the meeting, Sereth turned the sample pearls over the RCMP who measured and photographed them and then returned them to the dealer. The samples matched pearls listed on the invoices of those stolen from REA Express. Sereth later turned down the offer and gave the samples back to Chambers.

Chambers, meanwhile, enlisted the help of two Vancouver businessmen who tried to sell the pearls to two undercover police officers who were posing as members of a Toronto organized crime syndicate. A meeting was arranged for February 15, 1971, at the Royal Hotel in Vancouver during which $250,000 and 300 pounds of pearls were supposed to change hands. After verifying the goods were at the hotel, the undercover officers arrested Eugene Killam and Barry Ehrl for possession of stolen property, and seized two steamer trunks of pearls as evidence. On March 10, the RCMP obtained a search warrant for Chamber’s office and seized the 15 sample pearls and a file with Chard’s name on it, containing evidence about fencing the stolen gold bars.

The two steamer trunks containing dozens of bags of pearls, seized by the Vancouver Police, were wheeled into the courtroom and introduced as evidence. Wilson Fosse, the U.S. Customs appraiser who first examined the shipments in December 1969, identified the pearls as matching invoices of the shipments stolen from REA Express. Expert witnesses from the FBI testified that handwriting and fingerprints on slips of paper, found inside the bags of pearls, were Chard’s. After four days of testimony, the government rested it case.

A motion by defense attorney Savage, to have all the charges against Chard dismissed for lack of evidence, was denied by Judge Goodwin. Savage then rested the defense without calling a witness or putting Chard in the stand. Court was adjourned late Thursday afternoon, May 14, 1971, until Monday.

Closing arguments were begun on Monday morning, May 18, 1971, and the case went to the jury at 2:15 p.m.. After deliberating for less than two hours, the jury of five men and seven women found Chard guilty of all five counts of possession and transportation of property stolen from interstate shipments. Judge Goodwin later sentenced Chard to 30 years incarceration at the McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary.

Who Killed the Driver?

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer asked the question “Who Stole Pearls? Who Killed REA Driver.” Investigators knew Chard had likely engineered the pearl hijacking, but they just didn’t have enough hard evidence to prove it in court. They hoped the trial of Eugene Killam and Barry Ehrl in Vancouver B.C. would provide new leads about the crimes. Meanwhile everyone, including Aicher’s wife, just had to be satisfied with Chard’s conviction and 30-year sentence.

On October 25, 1971, attorney Martin Chambers was arrested in Vancouver B.C. and charged with two counts of conspiracy and three counts of possessing stolen gold and pearls. Killam and Ehrl, who had been charged earlier in connection with the stolen pearls, were recharged with conspiracy as well as possession of stolen property when Chambers became a defendant.

The Second Trial

The trial of Killam, Ehrl, and Chambers began in Vancouver B.C. on Monday, December 13, 1971, and concluded on Tuesday, February 8, 1972. Killam was convicted of possession of stolen property, and the other two defendants were acquitted of all charges. Ehrl claimed he was told the pearls were property of the wealthy Killam family, and Chambers said Chard told him the raw pearls had been smuggled into the United States from Vietnam. The prosecution made no attempt to connect the defendants directly with the robbery and homicide at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on December 22, 1969.

Harry E. Chard was paroled from the Federal Penitentiary in Lompoc, California, on May 15, 1981, after having serving one third of his sentence. He died in Kenmore, Washington, on September 15, 2005, at age 66, without confessing to his role in the hijacking or revealing who shot Carlyle Aicher. The murder of Aicher has never been solved and is still an open investigation at the King County Sheriff’s Department.

Sources: “Courier on Gem Hijack,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 24, 1969, p. B; “18 Pearl Boxes Sought,” Ibid., December 25, 1969, p. 38; “Kenmore Man Arrested in Hijack Slaying,” Ibid., December 26, 1969, p. 1; “FBI Report Waited on Hijack,” Ibid., December 27, 1969, p. 3; Maribeth Morris, “Friend testifies that Chard Said He Knew Killer,” Ibid., May 11, 1971, p. 14; “Chard Defense Fails to Exclude Death Testimony,” Ibid., May 12, 1971, p. 5; Wayne Jacobi, “Canada Police Tell Jury How Pears Were Found,” Ibid., May 13, 1971, p. 6; Walter A. Evans, “Chard Case Testimony ends Abruptly,” Ibid., May 14, 1971, p. 6; Wayne Jacobi, “Pearl Case Defendant Convicted,” Ibid., May 18, 1971, p. 1; “Who Stole Pearls? Who Killed REA Driver?” Ibid., May 18, 1971, p. 5; "B.C. Man Guilty, Two Innocent in Big Pearl Case,” Ibid., February 9, 1972, p. C-16; “Truck Driver Slain; Gem Cargo Missing,” The Seattle Times, December 23, 1969, p. 1; “Search Pressed for Stole Gems,” Ibid., December 24, 1969, p. B-13; “Car Sought in Slaying of Pearl-Truck Driver,” Ibid., December 30, 1969, p. A-6; “Detectives Seeking Clues in Dec. 23 Slaying of Driver,” Ibid., January 11, 1970, p. A-17; “Seized Pearls Identified as 1969 Loot,” Ibid., February 17, 1970, p. D-13; Dee Norton, “Man Charged in 1969 Theft of Pearls,” Ibid., February 20, 1971, p. A-1; Dee Norton, “Man Bound Over to Face Pearl Charge,” Ibid., March 1, 1971, p. A-8; “2 Men Enter No Plea in Stolen-Pearl Case,” Ibid., April 14, 1971, p. E-8; “Bothell Man Goes on Trial in Pearl Case,” Ibid., May 10, 1971, p. A-4; Dee Norton, “Mounties Knew of Pearl Offer,” Ibid., May 12, 1971, p. G-12; Dee Norton, “Man Guilty in Case of Stolen Pearls, Gold,” Ibid., May 18, 1971, p. A-7; “Adjournment Won in Pearl Case,” Ibid., October 20, 1971, p. C-4; “B.C. Lawyer Charged in Pearl Case,” Ibid., October 26, 1971, p. C-17; “Police Testify at Pearl Trial,” Ibid., December 15, 1971, p. A-15; “1 Man Convicted in Pearl Case; 2 Cleared,” Ibid., February 9, 1972, p. A-15.

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