Franklin County

Tipster in bourbon theft ring can remain anonymous after judge's ruling

Five barrels of Wild Turkey bourbon were found behind a shed in Franklin County.
Five barrels of Wild Turkey bourbon were found behind a shed in Franklin County. Franklin County Sheriff's Office

Prosecutors do not have to disclose the name of the anonymous tipster who provided information that led authorities to investigate and indict suspects in the theft of bourbon from Central Kentucky distilleries, a judge ruled Wednesday.

Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate denied a defense motion that sought to compel prosecutors to furnish, among other things, the name, address and phone number of the informant who identified Gilbert "Toby" Curtsinger as a person in possession of barrels containing bourbon from Wild Turkey Distillery.

Curtsinger; his wife, Julie; and seven others were indicted by a Franklin County grand jury in April in connection with the bourbon theft/steroid sales ring.

Investigators say Gilbert Curtsinger was the ringleader of a criminal syndicate involved in the theft of more than $100,000 worth of bourbon from Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, where he was a senior employee, and Wild Turkey in Anderson County.

Curtsinger has pleaded not guilty to trafficking in controlled substances, receiving stolen property and engaging in an organized criminal syndicate.

On March 11, the Franklin County Sheriff's Office received the following tip through a "text-a-tip" line:

"You might be interested in whiskey being stolen in full barrels from Wild Turkey," the tip began. "Sean Searcy drives a truck for them back and forth to Nicholasville. In which he takes 4 to 5 barrels of whiskey off. His accomplice Toby Curtsinger who lives in Frankfort. He takes them to his house. He has 5 Barrels there now. As of today. He sells them btw 2500 to 3000 a Barrel. He also works at Buffalo Trace distillery. That's should ring a bell! This is a on going thing."

The tipster requested anonymity and a detective guaranteed it. Neither the tipster nor the tipster's phone number were disclosed when the prosecution filed evidence in the case with the Franklin Circuit Court clerk's office.

Defense attorney Whitney Lawson, who represents Gilbert Curtsinger, asked the judge to order prosecutors to disclose the tipster's identity and any other records of any communication with the sheriff's office.

Wingate said there was nothing in the record to indicate the tipster participated in any criminal transaction that led to Curtsinger's arrest.

Furthermore, Wingate wrote that there were "public policy implications at stake" in the case.

"We want the citizens of the commonwealth to provide law enforcement with information concerning criminal activity," Wingate wrote. "Concerned citizens, perhaps out of fear of reprisal or being labeled a 'snitch,' would be reluctant to disclose criminal activity without guarantees of anonymity. Indeed, so important was the anonymity to the tipster that the tipster requested anonymity twice from the detective, which the detective promised to honor.

"While we are not bound by a detective's promise to an informant, we are bound by the law. And the law is clear. The court may only disclose the identity of an informant if that informant may be able to give relevant testimony. Since the defendant has failed to show how the tipster could provide relevant testimony in his defense, we are constrained but to withhold the tipster's identity."

The judge did order the sheriff's office to submit to the court a list of calls made and received and text messages sent and received via the text-a-tip line from March 10 to April 22 so Wingate can determine whether any additional communication occurred between the tipster and the sheriff's office.

Wingate wrote that his opinion and order did not address the veracity and reliability of the anonymous tip and whether an anonymous tip could serve as grounds on which to issue a search warrant.

"We reserve judgment on that issue for another day if it should come before us," Wingate wrote.

His decision came after the state attorney general's office issued an opinion this month that said a law enforcement agency may use information from an anonymous tip in a text-a-tip program if it bears sufficient "indicia of reliability."

Four people have pleaded guilty in the bourbon theft ring.

In May, Ronnie Lee Hubbard of Georgetown and Shaun Ballard of Richmond pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of criminal conspiracy to receive stolen property, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.

In June, Leslie Wright of Frankfort, a former security guard at Buffalo Trace, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of criminal facilitation to receive stolen property over $10,000. That is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.

In August, Dustin "Dusty" Adkins of Georgetown pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of criminal conspiracy to receive stolen property over $10,000.

Hubbard, Ballard and Adkins were among the original nine people indicted in April. Wright, the 10th person indicted, was formally charged in May.

Searcy, who was named by the tipster, also was among the original nine people indicted.