‘Pappygate’ bourbon-theft ringleader pleads guilty in Frankfort, faces prison

"Eager to get this ... behind him"

Attorney Whitney Lawson speaks to reporters after her client Gilbert "Toby" Curtsinger entered a guilty plea Wednesday to amended charges in the 2015 bourbon-theft case.
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Attorney Whitney Lawson speaks to reporters after her client Gilbert "Toby" Curtsinger entered a guilty plea Wednesday to amended charges in the 2015 bourbon-theft case.

Gilbert “Toby” Curtsinger, the ringleader in the theft of thousands of dollars of bourbon from Central Kentucky distilleries, pleaded guilty Wednesday in Franklin Circuit Court to amended charges.

Under a plea agreement, Curtsinger faces 15 years in prison. A final sentencing date has not been scheduled because Curtsinger has agreed to testify against one remaining defendant, Mark Sean Searcy of Lawrenceburg, who is accused of assisting in the theft of barrels from Wild Turkey distillery in Anderson County.

Curtsinger, 47, his wife, Julie, 45, both of Frankfort, and seven other people were indicted in 2015 on charges of operating a criminal syndicate that trafficked in bourbon and anabolic steroids. The syndicate was involved in the theft of rare Pappy Van Winkle bourbon from Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort and Wild Turkey in Anderson County.

Gilbert “Toby” Curtsinger pleaded guilty in 2017 to amended charges in the theft of bourbon from Central Kentucky distilleries. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison Friday. Greg Kocher

Gilbert Curtsinger, a 26-year employee of Buffalo Trace who worked on the loading docks, distributed the bourbon through a syndicate that included members of his recreational softball team.

Searcy, 51, the remaining defendant whose case is pending, allegedly assisted in the theft of barrels from Wild Turkey, where he was a truck driver responsible for barrel deliveries to and from the Anderson County distillery to a warehouse near Camp Nelson in Jessamine County, according to Curtsinger’s plea agreement. Curtsinger took those barrels and then sold them at a profit, which he split with Searcy, the plea agreement says.

The heist and resulting criminal case became known as “Pappygate.” It drew national attention from The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

In 2013, 195 bottles of 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle and 27 bottles of Pappy Van Winkle rye were reported stolen. Their total value: $26,025.

Whitney Lawson, Curtsinger’s attorney, maintained Wednesday that it is not known who stole those bottles.

“We are no better off today in terms of knowing who did that theft from Buffalo Trace than we were in 2013,” Lawson said.

Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Zach Becker said, “I really don’t know how to respond to that.” Becker said the facts of the case in the plea agreement say that Curtsinger engaged in criminal activity that resulted in the theft and distribution of 28 bottles of Pappy and 20 cases of Pappy (12 bottles per case), and 20 cases of Eagle Rare bourbon (six bottles per case).

“You’re talking about a lot of bottles there,” Becker said. “So if you want to split hairs, that’s fine, but that’s what he pled guilty to today.”

After the initial theft was reported in 2013, the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office interviewed more than 100 people, but the investigation dragged on for months without an arrest.

Then, in March 2015, an anonymous tipster to the sheriff’s Text-a-Tip line reported seeing whiskey barrels behind the Curtsingers’ home in Franklin County.

The five full barrels proved to have bourbon that would have been destined to become Wild Turkey 101 and Russell’s Reserve (a bourbon aged 10 years) and were valued at $3,000 each, according to the company. The tops and bottoms of each barrel had been spray-painted to obscure the distillery marks.

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

A detective for the sheriff’s office said in 2015 that Gilbert Curtsinger would load barrels into his black pickup, cover them with a tarp, and take them to potential buyers, all while dressed in his green Buffalo Trace shirt. The value of all the stolen bourbon eventually was determined to exceed $100,000.

sheriff melton at 2015 press conference
Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton, with bottles of recovered Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 20-year-old bourbon in the background, talked about indictments in a whiskey theft ring during an April 2015 news conference.The theft targeted the Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey distilleries and included Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. File photo by Charles Bertram Herald-Leader

Two charges of receiving stolen property against Gilbert Curtsinger were amended from Class C felonies (with penalties of five to 10 years in prison) to Class D felonies (carrying penalties of one to five years). In addition, initial charges of enhanced trafficking in controlled substances were amended from Class C felonies to Class A misdemeanors that carry penalties of up to one year in jail.

Another charge of engaging in organized crime, a felony punishable by 10 to 20 years in prison, was amended to a Class D felony punishable by one to five years.

Julie Curtsinger accepted a plea deal in 2016 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. She has not been sentenced but a prosecutor recommended that she serve a year in jail.

Shaun Ballard of Richmond, Ronnie Lee Hubbard and Dustin “Dusty” Adkins, both of Georgetown, accepted plea agreements in 2015. Christopher Preston and Joshua Preston, a Frankfort father and son, followed suit in 2016.

Leslie Wright, a 10th defendant who was indicted after the original nine, also pleaded guilty in 2015. Prosecutors say Wright, a security guard at Buffalo Trace, was paid $500 on one occasion and $300 on another to look the other way as Gilbert Curtsinger and another man stole 11 stainless-steel barrels from the Frankfort distillery.

Wright and the other defendants who accepted plea agreements have not been sentenced because they had agreed to testify should there be a trial. Another defendant, Robert McKinney, had his case dismissed when Julie Curtsinger entered her plea.

Others were caught up in Pappygate but were not charged.

Among them was 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 was allegedly involved in a transaction for anabolic steroids with Gilbert Curtsinger.

Former Georgetown Police Chief Greg Reeves was among the people who bought a barrel of stolen bourbon, according to court documents filed in 2015. Reeves, who had left the department before buying the barrel, cooperated with investigators and wasn’t charged.

Curtsinger’s plea agreement indicates that the bourbon seized from his house will be forfeited and destroyed. Becker said there will be discussions with Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate on the final disposition of the bourbon.

One stainless steel barrel of Eagle Rare now in evidence at the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office is worth more than $10,000, Becker said.