Bourbon-barrel bust: Crime ring heists Kentucky distilleries
03/29/2016 1:14 pm PDT
Frankfort, Kentucky is the quaint, bucolic capital of the Bluegrass State, and home to one of its most prized exports: whiskey, known in polite circles as bourbon -- better known in these parts as "liquid gold."
"As matter of fact, 95 percent or thereabout of the bourbon that is produced is made in Kentucky," said Reeves Wiedeman, a Men's Journal magazine reporter.
"The economic impact: huge," said Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton.
Authorities claim Gilbert "Toby" Curtsinger was the ringleader of an organized crime syndicate trying to drain big money out of the booming bourbon business.
"You're talking several hundreds of thousands of dollars," said Sheriff Melton.
"I think this kind of caught people's imagination because it was this kind of strange caper," said Wiedeman.
Wiedeman says Curtsinger and his band of bourbon thieves stole enough of Kentucky's finest to get more than half the state liquored up.
"It wasn't like thieves sneaking into some fancy place, stealing something from a bank or museum," said Wiedeman. "This was normal everyday employees at these distilleries, but they pulled off this kind of remarkable years-long heist of this suddenly very desirable product."
This was no nickel-and-dime operation. Cops claim they were stealing the good stuff.
"You take the $100,000 barrel of Pappy and the barrel of rare, that's probably $13,000. Then all the bottles of Pappy that we have," said Melton.
Just a single barrel of Pappy Van Winkle, the high end of bourbon, is worth as much as $100,000.
And Curtsinger allegedly stole at least one barrel, countless bottles and several cases of Pappy.
"A shot of Pappy today is a hundred dollars in most bars, if they even have it," said Melton.
"Pappy's the sexiest bourbon around," said Wiedeman. "If you want to try to buy one you have to be lucky or know someone. The bottles go for sale online for as much as $3- to $4,000."
According to police, Curtsinger and his underground syndicate had been heisting hooch since 2008, and likely long before that.
"You had a statewide ring, you had multiple counties and multiple people involved," said Sheriff Melton.
And reportedly all of their liquid loot came from two places: the Buffalo Trace Distillery, where Curtsinger worked for more than 20 years, and the Wild Turkey Distillery, where his friend Mark Searcy was a longtime employee.
"Toby Curtsinger allegedly started out small, stealing bottles or cases of bottles," said Wiedeman.
From there he started moving into barrels. That's where he started recruiting his friend Mark Searcy at Wild Turkey, who transported barrels from the Wild Turkey Distillery to an auxiliary warehouse. Allegedly, somewhere along the way he'd stop off at his father-in-law's house, which was a kind of farm outside of Frankfort.
"They would cook the books and basically say that the truck is supposed to have 90 barrels, and it had 97 or it had 103, and they marked it down to show that they just miscounted and it showed 100," said Melton.
Sheriff Melton says Curtsinger would also pay security to look the other way or label barrels as discarded so he could haul them away without raising suspicion.
But if any co-workers did get suspicious, police say Curtsinger made sure they kept their mouths shut.
"This was somebody that you didn't want to mess with down there," said Melton. "The union's very big down there, and if you crossed him you're going to lose your job."
And if that wasn't enough to shut people up, cops say Curtsinger wasn't afraid to threaten people with a lot more than their job.
"He would go and pull out a gun and start shooting at a hill," said Melton. "All that's intimidation tactics."
Officials at the Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey distilleries never had a clue until March 2015, when the police got an anonymous text on their text-to-tip hotline that led them to Curtsinger's front door.
"We got a great tip that there were five barrels of bourbon behind an out building just as the crow flies a couple miles from here," said Sheriff Melton.
"The police went to his house looked around and in fact found that he had five barrels behind a shed," said Wiedeman.
"They found a great big safe with numerous guns with silencers, also a whole bunch of steroids. I mean a bunch," said Melton.
Curtsinger, his wife Julie, Mark Searcy and six others were all were charged with one count of engaging in organized crime.
Despite what police call a ton of evidence, Toby Curtsinger denies all charges. But cops claim they've broken up a bourbon ring drunk with power.
"Basically in Kentucky, or anywhere, if you have five or more people involved you have a criminal syndicate, and these guys developed a distribution of folks that would sell barrels of bourbon," said Sheriff Melton. "They were selling these barrels for anywhere from 1,600 to 2,500 or $3,000."
Three of the nine indicted in the organized crime ring have taken plea deals. Curtsinger and his wife have pleaded not guilty, and Mark Searcy has yet to enter a plea.