RETURNING FROM PARTS UNKNOWN
In a little more than six months, a small-time thief named Everett Francis Wann is scheduled to be released from federal prison, where he has spent the past eighteen months serving time for swiping aircraft parts sent to a Continental Airlines warehouse in Denver. Although Wann's release may hold little significance for most people, it has special meaning for Barry and Sheldon Chrysler.
That's because, while Wann's debt to society soon will be paid off, the Chryslers will be trying for years to make good on the bills they accumulated from Wann's crime--even though they were never even accused of doing anything illegal. Indeed, without the brothers' help, prosecutors probably would not have been able to nail Wann.
As many crime victims will confirm, the innocent bystanders often end up paying a far higher price than the criminal. With the Chrysler brothers, the cost they are paying for assisting law enforcement authorities in solving Wann's crime can be calculated in dollars and cents. They figure it comes to about $667,000.
And although they had hoped to recoup some of those losses through the courts, it appears as if the 47-year-old twin brothers are out of luck. Three weeks ago a federal judge closed the door on their final effort to recover any money they lost from the ordeal. "We tried to do things the right way," says Sheldon. "But we'll think twice about enforcing the system again, especially in light of what we have lost and gone through."
The Chryslers, who buy and sell aircraft parts for a living, first came to the attention of the FBI in February 1987. That's when a company they'd sold parts to alerted Continental Airlines that its records showed the parts still belonged to Continental.
Continental informed the FBI, whose agents quickly paid visits to Barry's house, and then Sheldon's. Sales records kept by the brothers pointed the federal agents to Everett Francis Wann, a Continental graveyard-shift parts supervisor who'd sold them the parts.
From there, it didn't take the agents long to begin asking how Wann, who earned $26,000 a year, recently had managed to acquire several parcels of land in eastern Colorado, as well as a new, top-of-the-line pickup truck. According to David Conner, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case, the FBI eventually determined that Wann had taken advantage of Continental's loose-parts tracking system in Los Angeles by ordering the parts delivered from California to Denver, where he simply hauled them away.
Unfortunately for Barry and Sheldon Chrysler, Wann chose the brothers' aircraft parts brokerage business to dispose of the stolen goods, everything from jet-engine governors to control-panel gauges. According to Barry, the Chryslers paid Wann $172,000 for 83 separate parts.
Not that the brothers didn't check out Wann's goods before they bought them. Buying and selling airplane parts, which frequently are hot, is a dicey business, and the Chryslers were meticulous. First, they cross-checked the serial numbers on the parts they purchased from Wann with serial numbers of stolen parts that appear in the back pages of trade magazines. None matched.
Next, Barry called the FBI to ask whether any parts matching the description of Wann's merchandise had been reported stolen. The FBI told him that none of them had been reported stolen. (Conner confirms that the Chryslers checked with the agency and came up empty.)
Finally, they required Wann to sign their checks with a restrictive endorsement, which states that the goods being exchanged are the legal property of the seller and which--in theory, anyway--releases the payer from liability. Says Nina Iwashko, a Denver attorney who represented the brothers, "There's nothing more they could have done to make sure that the parts they got [from Wann] weren't stolen."
Nevertheless, the Chryslers soon became tied up in the FBI's investigation into Wann. The parts they had purchased from him but hadn't yet sold were confiscated. Agents also began dissecting nearly every deal the brothers had made in the past couple of years.
The investigation dragged on for what seemed to the Chryslers an eternity. (The brothers were not told that they weren't a focus of the probe until April 1990; Wann was not indicted until nearly five years after the FBI first dropped by Barry's house.) Worse, as word of the FBI's interest in the Chryslers spread, the brothers' reputation, and their balance sheet, took a nosedive.
Companies that Barry had done business with for years began backing away. "One company refused to pay for a Lear Jet part I had sold them because they said that it was tainted, which it wasn't," he recalls. "They eventually paid. But the next thing I knew, they said they didn't want to do any more business with me."
Other companies, particularly those the brothers unwittingly sold the stolen parts to, followed. Two Miami companies sued the Chryslers for having sold them hot Continental parts. Barry says he settled out of court with them for a total of $272,000. Nevertheless, both companies, which had conducted nearly a dozen deals with the brothers over the years, refused to do any further business with them.
Conner says he is sympathetic to the toll the FBI's investigation took on the Chryslers' business, but that the government's tactics were appropriate. "It was necessary for the United States to track a fairly substantial amount of money in this case in order to attempt to prove" the government's case, he explains.
At the same time the FBI was investigating the Chryslers' ties to Wann, Continental Airlines seemed determined to extract its share of retribution--never mind that no one had been indicted yet. In early 1989 the airline filed a lawsuit against both the Chryslers and Wann, asking for $6 million in damages.
A year later--after various counterclaims by Wann and the Chryslers--the company dropped its claims and signed a settlement agreement with the Chryslers, in which Continental and the brothers both agreed not to sue each other. (Continental, through one of its local attorneys, Christian Onsager, declines to answer any questions about the case.)
The agreement mentioned nothing about Continental's intention to retrieve the parts the Chryslers had bought from Wann. Concluding that they were then free to lay claim to the merchandise for which they'd paid $172,000, the brothers in September 1990 officially asked that the FBI return the parts to them when it completed its investigation.
Continental disagreed with that interpretation of the settlement agreement, however. A month later the company's lawyers filed a "clarification" of the agreement, laying its own claim to the nearly five dozen unsold parts. Further complicating matters, the airline in December 1990 filed for protection from its creditors under Chapter 11 bankruptcy laws, effectively putting any further legal wrangling on hold.
Meanwhile, the Chryslers were cooperating with prosecutors. Indeed, their careful record keeping was doing wonders for the FBI's case against Wann. Barry had kept all the boxes in which Wann's parts had been delivered, as well as the canceled checks he had made out to Wann. Even better for the FBI, Sheldon not only had kept the canceled checks; he also had written down the serial and part numbers on them for each of the items he purchased from Wann.
Thanks to the Chryslers' compelling testimony and voluminous records, Wann was indicted in November 1991, and Conner easily convinced a jury of his guilt during the August 1992 trial. It took the U.S. District Court jury only about three hours to nail Wann on fourteen counts of theft. "Had it not been for the two of us voluntarily testifying against Wann," Sheldon points out, "this guy could still conceivably be at Continental, ripping them off."
Wann was sentenced to three years in federal prison. According to federal prison officials, he is eligible for parole this November.
The Chrysler brothers will be paying their debt for some time to come. The business they lost as a result of the FBI's four-year investigation, as well as the $125,000 they calculate they racked up in legal fees fighting Continental, took a huge financial toll. Barry lost his house and an airplane. Last November, Sheldon, who already had mortgaged his house to cover the bills, shut down his radio business.
Despite the losses, the brothers had continued to hold out hope that a bankruptcy court in Delaware would decide they were entitled to the aircraft parts confiscated by the FBI in 1987. Last month, however, the Chryslers' nearly decade-long odyssey through the justice system ended with discouraging news. On February 14, exactly seven years after the FBI showed up on Barry Chrysler's doorstep, a judge ordered that the aircraft parts the Chryslers purchased from Wann be returned to Continental.
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