Illustration by Steven P. Hughes
Motionless and silent, Carlyle Aicher sat at the wheel of a green panel van in a near-empty parking lot just east of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
The night was cold, but not unseasonably so, and Aicher (EYE-ker) wore a red and black flannel shirt under his green jacket, which matched the van. Outside the sound of howling wind mixed with the rough crunch of tires spinning on loose gravel as a gold and black Cadillac sped away into the night.
It was a little after 8pm on Monday, December 22, 1969, the beginning of what was scheduled to be a busy couple of days for Aicher at REA Express. The 51-year-old had worked for the national delivery service for years, since the days when it was known as Railway Express. Lately he’d been stuck behind a desk, working the day shift as an accountant. This being Christmas week, though, he’d agreed to put in some overtime and get back behind the wheel, ferrying shipments from the company’s airport warehouse in Cargo Building One to planes waiting on the tarmac.
Tonight’s cargo: more than 300 pounds of pearls, packed in 18 wooden crates stamped “Duty Paid.” Just hours earlier, the creamy white, iridescent little spheres had arrived on Northwest Orient Airlines from Tokyo and Kobe, Japan. Having made it through customs, they were ultimately bound for New York, and it was Aicher’s job to make sure they caught their flight, scheduled to leave between 10:15 and 10:30. His route was less than half a mile, entirely within the airport complex.
Aicher’s reward for that overtime should have been a boisterous holiday in his Ballard home. Just as they had done for years, he and his wife, Eleanor, planned to host every family member who could make the trip: their grown children (a daughter and three sons), the couple’s various brothers and sisters, and Eleanor’s parents. The guests of honor, though, were Aicher’s grandchildren, four little rays of light who’d entered his life at its darkest point.
But by the morning of December 23—12 hours after Aicher had set out to make his delivery—the van still hadn’t moved from the vacant parking lot. And when airport police checked on the vehicle after another driver reported seeing it, they found Aicher still inside, his body slumped against a window. He’d been shot three times at close range, once in the face and twice in the chest. And the pearls, once destined for the other side of the country, were gone.
At 4:40 that afternoon Carlyle’s oldest son, Daniel Aicher, collapsed into his car after a shift at the Lockheed shipyard on Seattle’s Harbor Island and turned the radio to KJR-FM. The 27-year-old had barely begun his drive home to Lynnwood when a voice interrupted the music. Breaking news out of Sea-Tac: Authorities are searching for a large shipment of pearls stolen from an REA Express delivery van. Daniel’s heart went cold. And the driver of the van, Carlyle Aicher, of Seattle, is dead.
It wasn’t possible. Daniel had just seen his dad; they were knee deep in renovating the family’s Ballard home to give Eleanor the kitchen she’d always wanted. Carlyle Aicher, of Seattle, is dead. Rush hour was ramping up, but Daniel might as well have been alone on the road. He was driving through a fog and when he finally came to, rather than pull over and succumb to grief, he yanked the wheel toward KJR’s offices, rage propelling him forward.
“Where did you get your information?” he yelled at the station manager. “What do you think you’re doing, releasing news like that on the radio before his family has been notified?” The station manager was visibly shaken, effusively contrite, but Aicher hadn’t blown through the doors in search of an apology. He was looking for a target at which to aim the emotions he couldn’t yet process. He went to a nearby tavern to use a phone, called his mom, and found that she’d learned of her husband’s death the same way. She was weeping, and then the magnitude of their loss washed over him. I just got him back, Daniel thought. And now he’s gone completely.
Tragedy had been a constant in Carlyle’s life. He grew up in Wyoming, the son of William Aicher, a successful rancher. He had two younger siblings, Lorraine and Franklin. As the oldest, he was responsible for watching the kids from time to time, and on one such occasion he was playing in the pasture with his brother. Carlyle only turned away for a second, but that was just long enough for Franklin to grab the tail of a horse, which bucked and hit the boy square in the forehead.
The incident blinded Franklin and scarred Carlyle permanently: Their father exhausted his savings trying in vain to fix his young son’s eyesight, and when the money was gone the Aichers moved west to Seattle, where William settled for a job as a roofer. Carlyle never forgave himself for what his mistake cost the family, no matter how much anyone tried to explain that sometimes things just happen.
Daniel couldn’t—or maybe refused to—console himself with the idea of cosmic unpredictability as he thought of his father dying, alone, in that van near the airport. Those bullets didn’t find their way into Carlyle’s body on their own. Someone pointed a gun at him and pulled the trigger. Three times. And the more Daniel played out the scenario in his mind, the more he obsessed over the likelihood that Carlyle knew his killer. Railway’s drivers moved all kinds of freight, at all times of day. If one wanted to make a big score, the odds of picking just the right van on just the right route were astronomical. So the person or people responsible for the robbery either knew Railway’s schedule or got very lucky.
The sun hadn’t yet risen on Christmas morning when King County Sheriff’s detectives and agents from the FBI knocked on the front door of a home on 64th Avenue Northeast in Kenmore.
REA wasn’t immune to this kind of crime. Just a year and a half earlier, thieves had hijacked a truck on the East Coast, making off with $500,000 in dimes. But Carlyle Aicher’s murder had raised the stakes in the Sea-Tac robbery, and authorities wasted no time in pursuing leads. The clues pulled them in the direction of Harry Chard almost immediately. Chard, 30, was a former employee of Railway Express and a friend of the driver originally scheduled to carry the pearls that night—who, coincidentally or not, had long been suspected by supervisors of stealing shipments herself. It was another tip, though, that potentially put Chard at the scene of the crime.
The night of the heist, a young woman named Bonnie Day had been driving out to the airport to visit her brother-in-law, who worked for Emery Air Freight, a competing delivery service next door to REA. As she drove west along an access road that led to the cargo building in which both businesses were housed, a gold and black Cadillac came careening out of an adjoining parking lot and onto the road, almost hitting her as it sped off east.
Day didn’t think much of the near accident until the following afternoon, when her brother-in-law told her what had happened to Aicher. She shuddered as she described the car and where it came from: the very lot where the van was discovered. “You need to talk to the police,” he told her.
Harry Chard owned a gold and black Cadillac, and he was quite proud of it. After leaving Railway in early 1968, he’d moved on to Emery, where he quickly acquired a reputation as a braggart and an all-around odd duck. He liked to open his wallet wide and show off the stack of bills he typically carried, and he told wild stories about a shipment of gold that his grandfather had stolen off of a train in the Civil War. He also washed his hands constantly—obsessively, even—and insisted on wiping down the steering wheel and shift knob of whatever truck he was assigned before starting his runs.
As a coworker, Chard’s quirks made him, if not likable, a curiosity worthy of bemusement. As an employee, he was a liability. His transgressions ranged from showing up to work every day in socks and sandals, despite a requirement that all drivers wear steel-toe boots, to parking his delivery van on a rail yard switch track and refusing to move it to let trains through. And he sparred with Wayne Rockwell—his supervisor and Bonnie Day’s brother-in-law—throughout his short time with Emery. “Someone wanted him to do something, he wouldn’t do it,” Rockwell remembers. “That’s just the way he was.” Chard kept thumbing his nose at authority right up until Rockwell fired him in spring 1969. So open and shut was the case for his termination that the Teamsters didn’t bat an eye.
The case the feds and sheriff’s office had built against Chard in the two days since the pearl heist was significantly less concrete. Yet when he answered the door at 4:30 Christmas morning to find those tired detectives on his stoop, holding a warrant for his arrest on suspicion of robbery and murder, he surrendered peacefully. As Chard rode off in the back of a police car, agents stayed behind to search his home. And when they left they carried several guns found inside, all of which would be sent to Washington, DC, and compared to the slugs taken from Carlyle Aicher’s body.
Daniel Aicher didn’t need a ballistics test to tell him that Chard was the man who’d killed his father. The car, his work history, the fact that he would have known Railway’s processes—it was all so clear. And the details that had emerged in the days since the robbery only bolstered his theory that it was an inside job.
Investigators had yet to find a witness who saw or heard anything suspicious along the path from REA’s warehouse to the waiting plane, which strongly suggested that the murder took place elsewhere—maybe even in the lot where Carlyle was found. Earlier in his Railway career, he’d treat his kids to the occasional ride along on a delivery run, and even at a young age Daniel could tell how seriously his father took the job of shepherding things from one place to the next. He never questioned why they were making the journey; he just ensured that they completed it. Which made it impossible for Daniel to fathom that his father would have deviated from his route by choice. Had the murderer gotten in the van with him at some point between the delivery service’s office and the waiting airplane? And given his cargo—nearly $85,000 worth of pearls—why on earth would he let someone in the van if he didn’t know them?
So Daniel was apoplectic when Chard was released four days later. Insufficient evidence, explained the federal agent assigned to the case, Buck Henry, as he sat with Daniel and his mother in the Aichers’ Ballard home. Chard’s tenuous connection to Carlyle, the gold Cadillac seen leaving the lot—it was circumstantial. And the FBI’s tests had ruled out each of the guns recovered from Chard’s home as the murder weapon.
He sat there next to his mother, listening but not really listening to Henry justify freeing the man Daniel believed was his father’s killer. His mind was drifting, struggling to reconcile the injustice Carlyle was enduring in death with the hardships he’d endured in life.
It was a decade earlier—Daniel was still in high school—when Carlyle threw out his back at work. He was in better shape then and driving a truck full time for Railway. His eyes were bigger than his arms, though, and after trying to lift one too many boxes that his body couldn’t bear, a wrenching pain took hold of his spine. Carlyle gritted his teeth and kept working—his own brother took a kick to the head and refused to lie down, after all—but it wasn’t long before the pain overwhelmed him and he agreed to go under the knife.
Rather than heal him, the process broke Carlyle further. Complications during a spinal tap left him nearly incapacitated, and the pain only strengthened its grip on him. Unable to work, Carlyle began to drink and wallow in the hole his body had left him in. By the time the Aichers’ marriage seemed to be crumbling, Daniel was already out of the house. But still, from afar, he watched his father become unrecognizable.
Carlyle had been an avid outdoorsman, and with Daniel he’d travel north to Ross Lake, where the pair would spend quiet mornings on the water, fishing for rainbow trout. In the years just before his accident, the elder Aicher had taken up hunting—Daniel sat out those trips; he’d never cared for guns—and his knowledge of the natural world flourished. It seemed like every time they entered the forest together, Carlyle would deliver his son some new fact about the flora around them. But after the injury, after the pain and alcohol twisted him, the fishing trips stopped and Carlyle retreated into his home.
Daniel tried to shake those memories as Agent Henry assured him and his mother that the hunt for Carlyle’s killer was just beginning. But the image of his father lying dead in that van, halfway between departure and deliverance, clouded everything. No, it’s already over, Daniel thought. And you let him get away.
As the investigation into the murder and robbery ground on for the next year without publicly uncovering anything of substance, the case hung suspended between two worlds: To the Seattle community, struck initially by the noirlike details, it was now a curiosity, a pulpy story that lost its appeal once consumed. To the Aichers, it was an agonizing reality that, in the absence of answers, continued to play out on an endless loop. “There was no social organization or anybody to come out and assist us through this,” Daniel would later explain. “We were on our own.”
On more than one occasion, he drove out to Kenmore and sat in front of Chard’s house, his car idling while his heart hammered. What he hoped to accomplish, he wasn’t sure. Perhaps part of him wanted to keep an eye on Chard at a time when no one else seemed willing.
But then, in February 1971, a break: Detectives with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police recovered most of the pearls in Vancouver. And four days later Harry Chard was once again arrested at his home, and held this time on $50,000 bail.
The swell of vindication that Daniel experienced—I was right all along—made it almost possible to ignore the fact that Chard hadn’t been accused of robbing and killing his father. Instead the FBI had arrested the former Railway driver on the lesser charges of possession of stolen goods and transporting them over state lines. Any disappointment Daniel felt was tempered by the investigators’ claims that this was just a first step. The trial, they told him, would surely tease out other details that would lead to Carlyle’s killer. He just had to be patient.
So on May 10, Daniel joined his mother in U.S. District Court in downtown Seattle, eager to watch federal prosecutors squeeze Chard until he admitted what he’d done. And, at least for the first few days, he listened intently as assistant U.S. attorneys Charles Pinnell and Bruce Carter laid out their case.
In January 1970, just weeks after the robbery, Chard had traveled to Vancouver, where his attorney, Martin Chambers, joined him at the office of a jeweler named Arthur Sereth. The pair offered to sell Sereth a collection of pearls that Chard claimed his father had acquired throughout his life. But the quantity they were trying to unload made the story sound absurd, and the dealer balked. He kept the samples they gave him, though, and turned them over to the RCMP.
Subsequently, Canadian authorities found two other men—later proven to be accomplices of Chard’s and Chambers’s—who had made it known in Vancouver that they had pearls to sell. And on February 15, 1971, undercover agents posing as buyers arrested the pair and confiscated their loot, on which FBI forensics experts found Chard’s prints after dusting each pearl individually.
Chambers had acted as Chard’s fence for several years, helping him move nearly three dozen gold bars that he’d stolen from Railway in 1967 and 1968—no doubt the gold that Chard had bragged about his grandfather heisting in the Civil War. It seemed that the hand-washing, socks-and-sandals-wearing antiauthoritarian had another quirk: He couldn’t quiet his telltale heart, even as he played with the facts in the retelling. Which may or may not explain why when a close friend of Chard’s took the stand early in the trial to recount a conversation the pair had the day after Carlyle Aicher’s murder, the friend explained that Chard said he knew who was responsible and was “glad he didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Daniel watched the proceedings from the gallery, rarely taking his eyes off Chard—even when the courtroom fell silent as RCMP officers rolled in the two trunks of recovered pearls to dramatic effect. The man Daniel saw sitting on the other side of the bar didn’t look like someone facing decades in federal prison. Chard had greeted former coworkers called in to testify with a breezy “Hey, how ya doin’?” as if they were bumping into each other on the street. He had smiled as one witness after another sealed his fate. And when Wayne Rockwell, the Emery Air Freight supervisor who fired him, left the stand and walked past the defendant’s table, Chard extended his cuffed hands in an attempt to shake Rockwell’s.
That blithe attitude, coupled with the government’s focus on “possession and interstate transportation” rather than “robbery and murder,” conspired to push Daniel over the edge. During a break in the trial, he accompanied his mother when she left the courtroom for a smoke. They’d barely stepped into the hall when Daniel stopped short. There in front of him, flanked by court officers, was Chard. The slightest hint of a smirk curled the man’s lips, and the rage that had built inside of Daniel for almost 18 months surged out from his heart and straight into his fist. He swung right at Chard’s shit-eating grin. And missed.
Even here, bound and defenseless, Daniel’s tormenter was untouchable.
The government rested its case after calling more than 40 witnesses over four days. The defense declined to call any, including Chard, robbing Daniel of what he’d hoped would be a revelatory inquisition. The next day, a Friday, the jury took less than two hours to convict Chard on all five charges, which included possession of the stolen gold bars. He would later be sentenced to 30 years.
The verdict was a hollow victory for the Aichers. They were no closer to getting answers to the questions that mattered to them—who killed Carlyle, who stole the pearls, and how did they end up with Chard—than they were 18 months earlier. And even if Chard had pulled the trigger, he wasn’t being made to answer for the crime. Eleanor wept quietly and Daniel felt like he was collapsing inward. “It’s not over yet,” the FBI’s Agent Henry said of the investigation. But somehow Daniel knew it was. And that was the greatest injustice of all.
Forty-six and a half years after Carlyle Aicher was killed, the case remains unsolved. The murder weapon was never found, and not one arrest has been made since Harry Chard was taken into custody in 1971. In fact, the only notable development in the investigation was a bizarre footnote in the early ’80s racketeering trial of a former King County detective: Richard Bartlett, one of many assigned to the case, was forced to resign when his superiors learned that he had discussed kidnapping and torturing Chard until the then-suspect revealed the location of the missing pearls.
The FBI closed its investigation after the pearls were recovered, and its files have since been destroyed. The King County Sheriff’s Office still treats Aicher’s murder as an open case; only a handful—including the assassination of civil rights activist Edwin Pratt in January of the same year—are older. Every tip, every report, every witness statement collected by the sheriff’s detectives fits into two black three-ring binders that have sat virtually untouched since funding for the department’s cold case unit ran out in 2012. But even if it were to be revisited, time has taken the memory—or life—of most of those involved.
Harry Chard walked out of federal prison on McNeil Island in May 1981, after serving less than one-third of his sentence. He died in 2005, and 11 years later King County has yet to rule him out as the one who pulled the trigger. Even at his sentencing for possession and transportation of stolen goods, the federal judge who presided over the case seemed confident that Chard was involved. “Maybe he will contend he didn’t plan that the man be killed,” judge William Goodwin declared. “But he did plan that somebody be relieved of the 300 pounds [of pearls].”
Chard’s wife still lives in their Kenmore home. She declined to comment for this story other than to say that she doesn’t recognize the name of the man many still suspect her husband killed.
Eleanor Aicher died in the mid 1980s without an answer to the question that hung over the last 15 years of her life. That same question hangs over Daniel. For years after Chard’s conviction, Carlyle’s oldest son fought back the emptiness that his father’s death had created. The rage subsided as he turned his attention to providing for his family; he had two young girls who needed their dad. “Over the years, I tried to pattern my life after Dad when he was a good man, not the four or five years he went through that were hell,” Daniel, now in his mid 70s, says today. “I talked to my kids about the strengths of family ties and buying a house and the typical things that my generation, as well as my father’s generation, valued.”
Every once in a while, though, he met someone who would recognize his name and start asking questions. Are you related to…? Did they ever…? Finally, 11 years ago, after the girls were grown and the memories got to be too much, he retired, packed up an RV, and drove south. Two years ago he landed permanently in Arizona. Today he participates in square dance festivals. It’s not the life that he would have planned, but Daniel Aicher knows as well as any that few lives end up the way you’d expect.
In a storage unit somewhere in Seattle sit the boxes that Daniel couldn’t fit in his RV. In one of them is a photo of his dad that he can recreate from one memory that isn’t too painful to recall.
Carlyle is lying on his back, on the floor of his Ballard home. It’s 1969, not long before his death, and he’s smiling. A real, honest to god, toothy grin. See, about a year or two earlier, he’d stopped drinking, gone back to work at Railway, and started reshaping himself into a version of the man Daniel had looked up to as a kid. But that’s not why he’s smiling. He’s holding one of Daniel’s young daughters, extending her toward the camera, as if passing her to her father. Making sure she gets there safely.