Kentucky Bourbon Bandit Sentenced to 15 Years

Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton with bottles of Pappy Van Winkle and Eagle Rare bourbons stolen in the “Pappygate” heist.

File this under the “Only In Kentucky” category. Bourbon Bandit Gilbert “Toby” Curtsinger, the ringleader in the “Pappygate” bourbon heist, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for the theft of more than $100,000 worth of liquor from the Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey distilleries.

The case first gained notoriety in 2013, after Buffalo Trace, located in Kentucky’s capital city of Frankfort, reported $26,000 worth of bourbon stolen from its distillery. Missing were 195 bottles of the ultra-rare Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve and 27 bottles of Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye.

Pappy is one of the most sought after labels around, and the top bourbon whiskey in the world, rated 99 out of a possible 100 at the World Spirits Championship. Its face value ranges from $100-$170-$270 per bottle, depending on its age stamp of 15, 20 or 23-years, but it’s rarely available for over-the-counter sales. Often lotteries must be held to give winners the privilege of purchasing a single bottle, or it’s sold on the black marked at several times its face value. The Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye, that also was pilfered, is aged for 13 years and valued at $120 a bottle.

The 23-year old Pappy Van Winkle, produced by Buffalo Trace, is the world’s No. 1 trophy bourbon, and often fetches a price of $3,000 and up on the open market.

The missing Pappy turned out to be only the tip of the iceberg for what law enforcement officials discovered was an organized crime ring that systematically stole premium bourbon from the Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey distilleries for resale beginning in 2008, along with engaging in the purchase and distribution of illegal steroids.

For two years the case dragged on without an arrest until March 2015, when an anonymous tip pointed a finger at Toby Curtsinger. Deputies with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office found five full barrels of bourbon behind Curtsinger’s home in Franklin County. The barrels contained bourbon destined to become Wild Turkey 101, often referred to as “Kickin’ Chickin’, and Russell’s Reserve, a premium Wild Turkey label aged 10 years.

Inside the house deputies found numerous firearms, anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, a large quantity of cash and needles to inject steroids.

Curtsinger was indicted as the head of a criminal syndicate, that included his wife and members of his recreational softball league team, who Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Zach Becker said collaborated on the theft, transportation, distribution and bootlegging of this premium bourbon, and the trafficking in anabolic steroids.

Eagle Rare bourbon, produced by Buffalo Trace Distillery.

Besides the five wooden barrels found behind Curtsinger’s house, 12 other wooden barrels were recovered, along with the bourbon from an additional barrel, and one stainless steel barrel of Eagle Rare, 17-year-old bourbon. Most of the barrels were valued between $3,000 and $6,000, however the Eagle Rare barrel was worth $11,000 to $12,000.

The evidence presented to the grand jury indicated the syndicate was also linked to the thefts of over 20 cases of Pappy Van Winkle bourbons; 50-70 cases of Eagle Rare bourbon; nine additional stainless steel barrels of bourbon from Buffalo Trace stolen in the winter of 2014; and numerous other wooden barrels recovered from Laurel, Scott and Harrison counties.

The total value of the stolen whiskey was conservatively estimated at $100,000.

Curtsinger, a 26-year senior employee at Buffalo Trace, worked on the loading docks, where he was able to load barrels into his pickup truck, cover them with a tarp and drive off property, having bribed a security guard working the gates.

Stolen barrels of bourbon recovered by sheriff’s deputies with identifying trademarks blacked out by Curtsinger and his associates. | Photo courtesy of Deborah Wilson

Some of the barrels were sanded and spray-painted black on the tops and bottoms to remove all marks from the distillery. Other times Curtsinger utilized his distillery position to legitimize his criminal activities, wearing Buffalo Trace apparel when approaching buyers.

Authorities said Curtsinger would tell potential buyers that his bourbon was under proofed, or was supposed to go overseas but the distillery changed its mind, so now he could sell it at a discount.

Early on there was a grain of truth to this story. Curtsinger admitted after his case was litigated how his bootlegging dated back several years earlier than law enforcement had been able to piece together. Instead of the thefts beginning in 2008 as originally believed, it was more like 2003, when Curtsinger was assigned to a warehouse for bourbon that failed to meet production standards. There was so much tainted bourbon taking up space that it was seen as a favor to supervisors that Curtsinger could make some of it disappear. Of course he made a bit of money off that less than perfect bourbon don’t you know.

Many buyers came forward and said they believed Curtsinger because he never indicated anything at all like it was stolen. He didn’t hide his identity. They’d known him for years and he always showed up to softball tournaments with liquor and gifts.

Wild Turkey Distillery, located in Lawrenceburg, KY.

Curtsinger fluctuated between selling barrels – or bottles of Pappy – through a middle man, and doing the dirty work himself. His criminal enterprise grew after an arrangement was struck to acquire barrels of Wild Turkey through Mark Sean Searcy, who was a truck driver responsible for barrel deliveries to and from the Anderson County distillery to a warehouse near Camp Nelson in Jessamine County.

Investigation documents showed that during his route Searcy would stop at his father’s home in Lawrenceburg, where he rolled the barrels out of the truck on an aluminum ladder into a barn on the property, then would call Curtsinger to inform him a pick-up was required and how many barrels needed resale.

While Curtsinger can be portrayed as an affable sort, certain statements to investigators showed a darker side to the defendant. One co-conspirator reported Curtsinger possessed a .22 caliber pistol with a silencer at work, and would discharge the gun in the distillery’s parking lot into a dirt pile in an effort to intimidate co-workers. He was also known to have sabotaged someone’s work in order to punish them for not going along with his requests.

Gilbert “Toby” Curtsinger, the Pappygate ringleader.

A grand jury in Frankfort indicted nine people in what was dubbed “Pappygate,” for engaging in organized crime, the equivalent of racketeering. Additionally, a former Buffalo Trace security guard, Leslie Wright, was later indicted and pled guilty to looking the other way when Curtsinger departed the distillery with barrels in the back of his truck.

Those indicted on April 21, 2015, were Curtsinger, his wife, Julie Curtsinger, Robert M. McKinney (Julie Curtsinger’s father), Mark S. Searcy, Ronnie Lee Hubbard, Dustin “Dusty” Adkins, Shaun Ballard, Christopher L. Preston and (his son) Joshua T. Preston.

Julie Curtsinger accepted a plea deal on a couple of drug-related misdemeanors. She entered an Alford plea, meaning that she did not admit wrongdoing but accepted that there was sufficient evidence against her for a conviction. Charges against her father, Robert McKinney were dismissed with his daughter’s acceptance of her plea deal.

The other indictees, except for Searcy, have all pled guilty and accepted plea agreements and probation in return for cooperating with the prosecution.

Others caught up in Pappygate but not charged included Frankfort police officer Mike Wells. As a Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) officer, he went into schools to warn students about the dangers of drugs. He resigned from the department in 2015 after he allegedly purchased anabolic steroids from Curtsinger.

According to court documents, former Georgetown Police Chief Greg Reeves was among the people who bought a barrel of stolen bourbon. Reeves, who had left the department before buying the barrel, cooperated with investigators and wasn’t charged.

Curtsinger, 48, pled guilty to reduced charges of engaging in organized crime (a Class B felony); two counts of receiving stolen property (a Class D felony); theft by unlawful taking (a Class D felony); four counts of second-degree possession of a controlled substance (a Class A misdemeanor); and possession of drug paraphernalia (a Class A misdemeanor).

“What we have here is a multifaceted crime ring, with three separate categories – Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey and steroids,” said Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Zach Becker. “The common link between all these categories is Mr. Curtsinger, who was centrally involved in every criminal aspect of this criminal syndicate.”

Curiously, Franklin County Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate granted Curtsinger shock probation after serving just 30 days of a 15-year sentence. Prosecutors did not object to the move.

Bottles of Pappy Van Winkle tagged as evidence at the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office. Can you imagine the price a bottle of Pappy might fetch that was certified stolen from Pappygate?

While it is well documented that our jails are overcrowded with violent offenders, and this clumsy conspiracy to steal and bootleg top-shelf bourbon was basically victimless – Curtsinger orchestrated the theft of more than $100,000 in prized property over a 10-year period. Clearly the distilleries want this to go away, but Curtsinger deserved to do some time. If a man of color had committed these same crimes he would likely be sitting in prison for years before a discussion was had about early release or shock probation. I believe this is an instance where the term “White Justice” would apply nicely.

Sadly, after all this thievery, deceit and prosecution, the truly criminal part is the seized bourbon is slated for destruction, under state law, because its whereabouts, contents and handling could not be vouched for to consumers. I understand the spirit of that law, but come on man, give the bourbon a chance!

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