Attorneys from Pepper Hamilton are aiding a Delaware author in his bid to force the FBI to release records of the agency’s investigation into the theft of crown jewels belonging to the House of Hesse, a German royal family, by U.S. soldiers at the end of World War II.
The Pepper Hamilton lawyers representing the author, William McMichael, said in a federal court filing on Tuesday that the FBI has improperly withheld more than 7,000 pages of documents potentially related to the heist, which resulted in the court martial and conviction of three U.S. Army officers in 1946.
McMichael, a freelance writer who has reported on the military and veterans’ issues for the Wilmington, Delaware-based News Journal, had lodged his request for documents last October under the Freedom of Information Act. Despite receiving initial assurances from the FBI, McMichael said the agency has failed to produce records, and that his request likely would not be processed until November 2018.
“As of the time of filing this complaint, the FBI has still not assigned the FOIA request or provided the records requested by plaintiff,” Pepper Hamilton partner Joanna J. Cline wrote in a six-page complaint. “The FBI has wrongfully withheld the requested records.”
McMichael’s request centers on the bizarre heist of an estimated $2.5 million in gold, silver and jewels from from their hiding spot in the Hesse family castle in 1945. The House of Hesse ruled the region, now a German state, until the unification of the country in the 19th century. The region includes the city of Frankfurt.
According to Fred L. Borch III, a retired Army lawyer who now serves as the regimental historian and archivist for the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps, Capt. Kathleen Burke Nash, a Women’s Army Corps officer, discovered the treasure in a wine cellar while she was managing the property as an officers’ club after World War II had ended in the fall of 1945.
Borch says Nash then shared shared the loot with Col. Jack W. Durant and Major David Watson, and the three together planned to smuggle the jewels out of the country and back to the United States. Eventually, the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division caught up with the thieves and flew them back to Frankfurt, where they faced general trial by court martial.
Nash, who married Durant, was convicted and sentenced to five years in jail for larceny, fraud against the government and conduct unbecoming, Borch wrote in a 2011 article in the publication The Army Lawyer. Her husband was sentenced to 15 years confinement and hard labor, and Watson received three years in jail. All three were dismissed from the armed services.
According to Borch, less than half of the missing jewels were returned to the Hesse family. Among the 207 retrieved items, he said, were a platinum bracelet encrusted with 405 diamonds, a platinum watch and bracelet with 606 diamonds and a sapphire weighing more than 116 carats. The rest of the jewels were never found.
McMichael, who lives in New Castle County, could not be reached for comment. Aside from freelancing, his prior work includes the 1997 book “The Mother of All Hooks,” which details the government’s attempts to punish naval officers for sexual misconduct committed at the 1991 Tailhook Association convention in Las Vegas.
Cline, his attorney, did not return a call Friday seeking comment on the case. McMichael is also represented by Christopher B. Chuff and Ellis E. Herington of Pepper Hamilton’s Wilmington office.
The case, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware, is captioned McMichael v. U.S. Department of Justice.