LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The alleged ringleader of a whiskey theft ring suffered a legal setback Tuesday when a Kentucky judge denied his motion to suppress evidence — including Wild Turkey bourbon barrels found on his property — that led to his arrest.
The ruling by Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate was the latest twist in the two-year-old case after authorities said they uncovered the scheme that spirited away large amounts of whiskey. The thefts included prestigious brands, such as Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, officials said.
An attorney for Gilbert "Toby" Curtsinger, a one-time distillery worker and the alleged ringleader, tried to suppress evidence that included several barrels of Wild Turkey bourbon found on Curtsinger's property. Defence attorney Whitney True Lawson argued that the confiscation by sheriff's officers violated her client's rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Wingate disagreed in his ruling that ended a lull in the "Pappygate" case.
"The defendant's reasonable expectation of privacy was not violated because officers observed, in plain-view, bourbon barrels on the defendant's property from an open field in which the defendant had no claim of privacy," the judge said.
Prosecutor Zachary Becker said he was pleased with the ruling.
Lawson declined comment other than to say: "We've gotten the order and we're reviewing it so that we can determine how to move forward."
Curtsinger has pleaded not guilty to charges that include engaging in organized crime, receiving stolen property over $10,000 and trafficking in a controlled substance. Authorities said they cracked not only whiskey thefts but a steroid-trafficking scheme as part of the investigation.
The whiskey thefts targeted the Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey distilleries in the heart of bourbon country and involved tens of thousands of dollars' worth of whiskey, authorities said. Authorities said they later recovered more bottles and barrels of stolen whiskey. Sheriff Pat Melton estimated that all the recovered whiskey was worth at least $100,000.
Several other people targeted by authorities as being part of the ring have entered guilty pleas. Most have agreed to testify against Curtsinger, prosecutors said.
Curtsinger's suppression motion stemmed from a crucial day of the investigation, when the Franklin County sheriff's office received an anonymous tip that five missing Wild Turkey bourbon barrels were stashed on Curtsinger's property.
Sheriff's officers went to Curtsinger's home but no one responded. The officers returned to a public access road that ran to wooded land next to his property.
"No paths, fences or 'no trespass' signs appeared in the woods," Wingate said. "The officers never left the forested area to cross onto the mowed, grassy area surrounding the residence until they obtained a search warrant to search the property.
"From their vantage point in the woods, the officers observed what they believed to be bourbon barrels visible under plastic tarps behind an outbuilding on the property."
The officers took photos, and one of them left to obtain the search warrant. The officers who stayed behind said they smelled a "strong odour " of bourbon coming from the direction of the barrels, the ruling said.
When they obtained the search warrant, the officers found the barrels were filled with bourbon. The barrels had been sanded and spray painted black on the tops and bottoms in what authorities believed was an effort to remove the distiller's marks, the ruling said.
Authorities later obtained a second search warrant for Curtsinger's home and another building on the property.
Bruce Schreiner, The Associated Press