By Steve Bittenbender
FRANKFORT, Ky. (Reuters) - Nine people were charged in Kentucky on Tuesday with stealing more than $100,000 worth of bourbon whiskey, including the prized Pappy Van Winkle brand.
Prosecutors say the scheme involved a group of people who knew each other through softball and relied on workers at two Kentucky distilleries who had been taking whiskey for at least seven years.
The theft was discovered after Franklin County Sheriff’s officers, acting on a tip, discovered stolen barrels of the whiskey behind a shed on the property of Gilbert "Toby" Curtsinger.
After recovering the barrels, the officers worked with investigators in the state Attorney General's office to uncover the organized plot to sell barrels and bottles of bourbon, some rye whiskey and anabolic steroids.
The bourbon stolen included Wild Turkey, made in Lawrenceburg south of Frankfort, and the expensive Pappy Van Winkle brand, made by Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, prosecutors said. The bourbon included 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle, which can cost more than $1,000 a bottle on the secondary market, said Tom Fischer of BourbonBlog.com.
Investigators found that barrels and bottles were sold across the state as part of the operation. Curtsinger, who worked at Buffalo Trace, and Mark Searcy, who worked at Wild Turkey, had access to the bourbon and were among those charged.
"You don't expect employees to steal from you," Sheriff Pat Melton said. "Obviously, this was a case where you had employees that made some very poor decisions."
The grand jury also indicted Julie Curtsinger, Ronnie Lee Hubbard, Dusty Adkins, Christopher Preston, Joshua Preston, Robert McKinney and Shawn Ballard on a count of engaging in organized crime, a B felony.
None were in custody at the time of the news conference, but officials said they had been in touch with attorneys for the suspects and did not expect any problems.
Bourbon, which is made with at least 51 percent corn and aged in oak barrels, is a $3 billion industry in Kentucky, according to the Kentucky Distillers' Association. The state produces 95 percent of the world's bourbon supply.
While dozens of bottles and several barrels were recovered, it may not be a happy ending for bourbon enthusiasts. Melton said the barrels would need to be destroyed after the case goes to trial, although he hopes the sealed bottles can be returned.
"That's a real shame," said Fischer, of the doomed bourbon. "I'd love to taste it before it's destroyed."
(Reporting by Steve Bittenbender in Frankfort, Kentucky; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Sandra Maler)