FRANKFORT — Nine people allegedly responsible for well over $100,000 in bourbon thefts, including ultra-rare Pappy Van Winkle, were indicted Tuesday in Franklin Circuit Court.
At least 18 barrels of bourbon from Wild Turkey in Anderson County and Buffalo Trace in Frankfort have been recovered by authorities, who also found 25 bottles of various labels of Pappy Van Winkle, also taken from Buffalo Trace Distillery.
The case has drawn national attention and is likely to get even bigger, officials said at a news conference in front of an array of containers — jugs, quart jars, unlabeled bottles, wooden barrels and at least one stainless steel barrel — all filled with bourbon.
Much more is out there, they said. The thefts date to at least 2008.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," said Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton. "As you can see, we've got a lot of bourbon up here."
Melton said the high-profile theft in 2013 of 195 bottles of 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle and 27 bottles of Pappy Van Winkle rye was linked to a mushrooming case of thefts of bourbon barrels discovered across the state — including five in Laurel County and an unspecified number from Harrison and Scott counties.
Melton said more indictments are possible. Warrants were being prepared Tuesday to arrest nine people, who could be arraigned this week. Attorneys for some defendants had contacted authorities to arrange surrender, Melton said.
The indictments include Gilbert "Toby" Curtsinger, 45, who authorities said was the ringleader, and his wife, Julie M. Curtsinger, 43, of Frankfort; Mark Sean Searcy, 49, of Lawrenceburg; Ronnie Lee Hubbard, 37, of Georgetown; Dusty H. Adkins, 42, of Georgetown; Christopher L. Preston, 45, of Frankfort; Joshua T. Preston, 23, of Frankfort; Robert M. McKinney, 66, of Frankfort; and Shawn R. Ballard, 31, of Richmond.
Melton and Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Zach Becker said the nine collaborated on the theft and sale of stolen bottles of bourbon, including Pappy Van Winkle and Eagle Rare from Buffalo Trace, barrels from Wild Turkey distillery, and barrels from Buffalo Trace, as well as controlled substances such as steroids.
"What we have here is a multifaceted crime ring, with three separate categories — Buffalo Trace, Wild Turkey and steroids aspects," Becker said. "The common link between all these categories is Mr. Curtsinger, who was centrally involved in every criminal aspect of this criminal syndicate."
He said that at this time federal authorities had not expressed interest in pursuing charges.
Another common link: softball. Members knew one another through participation in the sport.
"This all came together through softball," Melton said. "This network, through the distribution and sales ... was interconnected throughout the state. Friends through softball."
Curtsinger was a 26-year senior employee at Buffalo Trace working on the loading docks who would, according to Franklin County deputy Jeff Farmer, a detective on the case, load barrels into his black pickup, cover them with tarp, and take them to potential buyers, all while dressed in his green Buffalo Trace shirt.
"He never hid it," Farmer said. "He would tell them he got it at a discount. ... And he could sell it to them."
Farmer said Searcy, a Wild Turkey employee who delivered barrels from one warehouse to another, was passing stolen barrels to Curtsinger. Searcy would roll full Wild Turkey barrels down an aluminum ladder and into Searcy's stepfather's barn in Lawrenceburg, "and then call Toby (Curtsinger) and say 'I've got three, I've got eight barrels,' or whatever. And then Toby would arrange the sales through his people," Farmer said. "He would pay Sean a fee. Flipping them."
Sometimes, Farmer said, stolen barrels of Wild Turkey were sold as Weller Reserve, which is made by Buffalo Trace.
Another defendant, Chris Preston, also worked at Buffalo Trace; it isn't clear what role he might have played in the scheme.
Farmer said Curtsinger told many customers that the bourbon was legitimate, and many apparently thought since Curtsinger never hid his association with the distillery or his identity, the sale must be above-board.
The sales came through word of mouth, Farmer said.
"Everybody we talked to said 'I played softball with such-and-such,' or 'I know him through softball,'" he said.
In one case, Farmer said, a middleman who knew Curtsinger often had barrels of bourbon or bottles of Pappy to sell introduced him to some brothers who had a farm in Harrison County, and they bought a bottle of Pappy. Eventually, they also bought two barrels from him, as well, Farmer said.
"That's where we found them, in a camping trailer," Farmer said.
And the brothers had been drinking the bourbon.
"One of them was pretty much empty; the other one's over there," he said, gesturing across the room to the evidence.
Melton said that customers would pay $1,000 to $1,500 for a barrel and sometimes would give bottles to friends, often for the novelty factor.
"How many people do you know have a barrel of bourbon in their house? That just doesn't happen," Melton said.
He said the distilleries had helped educate his office on the barreling process and conducted extensive testing on the bourbon recovered to determine exactly what had been found.
Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey released a joint statement through Melton saying they had cooperated with the investigation by the Franklin County and Anderson County sheriffs' offices. "We take this matter very seriously and support the prosecution of anyone found in violation of state or federal government laws related to our business," the statement said. "As this is an ongoing investigation, we have no further comments at this time."
Attorney General Jack Conway, via video, thanked Melton and others for the weeks of work on the case. Conway said the attorney general's cybercrimes unit helped investigators comb through computers and cellphones seized after five bourbon barrels were discovered last month in a shed on Curtsinger's property.
The barrels proved to contain bourbon that would have been destined to become Wild Turkey 101 and Russell's Reserve. They were valued at $3,000 each, according to the company.
Melton's office had been working on a case involving illegal steroids, Conway said, and in executing a search warrant uncovered the bourbon.
Conway said the March search also turned up "bottles of Pappy Van Winkle, raising suspicions in relation to cases that had garnered this national attention."
The indictments Tuesday allege that the nine defendants were part of "a criminal syndicate that collaborated to promote or engage in" thefts from Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey, and illegally sell the stolen liquor as well as illegal anabolic steroids.
In addition to the five wooden barrels found in March, Becker said 12 other wooden barrels have been recovered, along with the contents of an additional wooden barrel, and one stainless steel barrel of Eagle Rare 17-year-old bourbon. Contents of similar stainless steel barrel also were recovered, Becker said.
Most barrels would have been worth $3,000 to $6,000 to the distilleries, depending on the type of bourbon and and its age, Becker said.
However, the Eagle Rare in the steel barrel would be worth $11,000 to $12,000, he said.
He said evidence presented to the grand jury indicated the syndicate also was linked to thefts of "over 20 cases of Pappy Van Winkle bourbons, 50 to 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 that have yet to be recovered."
Steroids, cash and guns also were seized from Curtsinger's house, authorities said.
At the end of the case, the bourbon will be destroyed, the authorities said.
"We're hoping that at least the Van Winkle family can get their bottles back, since they are in sealed bottles," Melton said.
One change Melton predicted: The industry will be revamping security measures across the board.
The bourbon industry in Kentucky is "on fire," he said, with multimillion-dollar expansions all over the state to keep up with booming demand.
There is no indication that other distilleries were targeted.
Wild Turkey, which has more than 500,000 barrels in Kentucky, was "very worried" about the scope of the thefts, Melton said. "There was stuff walking out frequently."