In the commercial combat zone of pop music, a hungry and hardworking quintet like the Whispers, which had been in the field for 15 years without a single hit, was understandably beginning to think that its records would never coin either gold or platinum. So, after a particularly desperate time in which the group got only five weeks of tour bookings (as the opening act for Evelyn "Champagne" King) in all of 1979, it seemed nothing short of alchemy when its latest LP, The Whispers, made not only No. 1 on the soul charts, but also the pop Top 10 as well. Simultaneously And the Beat Goes On became the No. 1 soul single and the Whispers were both heard and seen.

Then came an ironic jolt. All that glittered was not just a gold record, charged a federal grand jury in L.A., which on March 14 indicted the youngest and newest Whisper, Leaveil Degree, 31, along with his wife, Kimberly, and brother David, for possession of stolen gems and furs valued at $300,000. The government said that the jewelry—gold objects as well as sapphires and diamonds—was among that missing in a $1.8 million theft of a U.S. mail truck in L.A. last December 27. Leaveil and David were booked on six counts each, bearing potential prison sentences totaling up to 30 years. (Kimberly was charged with three counts.)

The government alleges that Leaveil and the others knew that the rocks in their possession were stolen. Yet the fact that within a few days of the heist they brought the gems for mounting to a prominent jeweler less than a mile from the scene of the theft "doesn't make sense," acknowledges U.S. postal inspector Michael Casadei. "But everything recovered so far has come from the Degrees. We're hoping they can tell us where the rest is," he adds.

Leaveil will say only that the valuables were a "gift" from his brother and that "I'll have plenty to say when I'm vindicated." He has pleaded not guilty and is back on the group's four-month tour—after posting $35,000 bail. So far Leaveil has the support of the other Whispers. "We can't walk out or turn our back on people if they make a mistake," says Nicholas Caldwell, 35, one of the group's founders. "Loyalty is important."

The arrest is nonetheless an embarrassment for a group previously known as one of the straightest in the business. The Whispers are outspokenly antidrug and antidrink. "We know that young people are influenced by entertainers," says Caldwell. "We like that responsibility." Well before they could really afford any such grand gesture, they donated the entire proceeds of one of their records to the family of singer Donny Hathaway, who died in an apparent suicide last year.

The Whispers developed their characteristically silken harmonies at Jordan High School in L.A.'s Watts. Twin brothers Wallace "Scotty" and Walter Scott, the sons of an ex-railroad man and his wife, joined with Marcus Hutson and Caldwell to create a sound influenced by both Smokey Robinson and the Four Freshmen. Explaining their chosen name, Caldwell says, "The result was very low, a whisper." But, unable to find work in the aftermath of the 1965 Watts riots, they moved to San Francisco. There they were joined by Leaveil, who was born in New Orleans and once worked as a security guard at Motown mogul Berry Gordy's Hollywood home ("I fell asleep and got fired," he jokes). In the ensuing years the Whispers opened for acts like the O'Jays and Isley Brothers before breaking out on their own.

Three of the Whispers—Caldwell, Hutson and Scotty Scott—are still in the Bay Area and are either single or divorced. Walt Scott and Leaveil are both remarried and live with their wives in L.A. The group is determined to stick together regardless of the outcome of Leaveil's June trial, a loyalty that sometimes bemuses them. "If this had happened six months ago," Caldwell observes with only a trace of bitterness, "who would have cared?"