Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Charles Chandeau Gets Caught

Although I don’t often tell the tales of people who were only briefly in LA, this one was too good not to share.

Every year, Hollywood hopefuls come to LA with stars in their eyes - in fact, one of my grandparents and their siblings tried to get into silent movies. None of them succeeded, although one did some background work, one had a stint as a horror star’s chauffeur, and another was married to a working actor.

Most dreamers either get regular jobs or go home when they don’t make it. At least one failed entertainer turned to nefarious means instead.

Charles Chandeau, aka Deschnau, aka Chenault, left Quebec for the West Coast in 1920, stopping in Victoria (BC), Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco before landing in LA. (Note: the LA Public Library and Calisphere both give his surname as Deschnau. However, Canadian military records indicate his legal name was Chandeau.)

Chandeau was an actor, but not a successful one. He had never had much money, but he did have a very particular skill set. One that made him a potential nightmare to to the city’s elite.

For years and years, the 50-year-old Chandeau had trained to be a magician. It’s well known that magicians (good ones, not the Gob Bluths of the profession) are masters of sleight-of-hand, misdirection, and illusion. 

He had also spent half of his life studying criminal masterminds, plotting a caper that would baffle the authorities.

Chandeau opened two safety deposit boxes in LA, probably for the purposes of casing the banks. 

Chandeau owned a rather large trunk. It looked like an ordinary trunk. In fact, it was a carefully modified magician’s trunk that Chandeau had originally intended for theatrical use. 

Although Chandeau was clever, he was also arrogant enough to think he wouldn’t get caught. And, like Gob Bluth, he made a huge mistake..

Chandeau needed an accomplice. He took out a classified ad in the newspaper, stating “WANTED - one who can rough it. He may be down and out, but must have left plenty of pep.” Chandeau was inundated with replies from men and boys who clearly understood the ad’s subtext. Detectives found ample proof of this when searching his hotel room.

Someone sent an anonymous tip to the Los Angeles Herald, which put noted private detective Nick Harris on the case.

Chandeau selected Earl Wilson from the stack of respondents. Wilson was just 18, had left home due to family problems, and a broken shoulder had put him out of work.

The plan was simple enough. Chandeau would hide inside the trick trunk, Wilson would have it stored inside the vault at the Hollywood Fireproof Storage Company on Highland Avenue (where early Hollywood’s elite stashed their valuables), and when the employees left, Chandeau would let himself out and loot the place. 

Unfortunately for Chandeau and Wilson, detectives had traced him to a hotel in then-fashionable Westlake and a second hotel on Flower Street. His room was bugged, and detectives could hear the entire plot unfold.

Chandeau rented a room on Wilcox, visited the storage facility, and spoke with the manager about rates, leaving a box of “valuables” that really contained shredded paper. He claimed to have a trunk full of ore that he would bring over the next day, stating that he wasn’t sure how long he’d be in town and that he might need to store it for a day or a month.

Wilson hired a transfer man (i.e. mover) to move the trick trunk to the rented room, then hired a second transfer man to move the trunk to the facility the next day. The trunk arrived just before the warehouse closed.

Detectives were watching.

Chandeau had stocked the trunk with flashlights, wires, tools, skeleton keys, metal files, first aid supplies (in case of rough handling), a bottle of water, oranges, sandwiches, cookies, and candy.

And, finally, a pair of kid gloves. Chandeau wanted to be sure he wouldn’t leave any prints.

Front page of the Evening Examiner, June 23, 1920.

Wilson was arrested while walking away from the storage facility. When confronted with details of the plot, he admitted Chandeau was in the trunk.

Besides assuming he wouldn’t get caught, Chandeau had made another crucial error: while the trunk was modified to allow for air supply, the vault was airtight when sealed for the night, and the facility sprayed disinfectant.

Had detectives not raided the vault as quickly as they did, Chandeau could easily have died of suffocation.

But detectives did indeed open the vault, accompanied by Evening Herald reporter Fred Woodward. Knocking on the trunk, Harris announced “Come on out, Charlie.” 

The jig was up. The lock popped open, the clamps came off, the trunk popped open, and Chandeau’s balding head popped out. Chandeau was so short of breath he could hardly gasp “Hello. How did you know I was here?” 

Chandeau’s trunk on display 

Chandeau was granted permission to speak with Wilson and told him “I am sorry I got you into this.” When asked why he would lead an 18-year-old into crime, he replied “Well, you can trust a boy not to squeal, but you cannot trust a man.” (I couldn’t help reading this in Gob’s voice.)

Recounting Chandeau’s failed scheme in the paper, Woodward claimed “The most astonished man I ever saw in my life was Charles Chandeau, alias Deschneau, when we opened the trick trunk and foiled a campaign of robbery that would have amazed and mystified the police of the entire country. Chandeau was so surprised at being discovered and ordered out of the trunk that he could barely gasp. The expression on his face was so tragic that it was almost ludicrous.”

Chandeau came clean, and even spoke highly of the detectives who arrested him: “During the years that I read criminal stories I formed the opinion that all police officers were ruffians. I was surprised when you treated me with kindness.” (Boy, LA has changed since 1920.)

Chandeau, dubbed the “Jack-in-the-box burglar” or the “trick trunk burglar” in the press, faded into obscurity after his burglary trial. A woman claiming to be his sister contacted authorities, stating the family had been looking for him ever since he left to serve in World War One (shades of Jean-Louis Vignes). Wilson fell ill and died before the trial.

As for Harris, he ran for Mayor in 1923 on an anti-crime platform. Nick Harris Detectives is still active to this day.

Is it just me, or would this story make a great heist comedy (ideally with Will Arnett playing Chandeau)? Or have I just watched “Arrested Development” way too many times?