FRANKFORT, Ky. – The alleged head of a bourbon theft ring recruited a security guard and paid her $800 to look the other way as thieves spirited away thousands of dollars’ worth of whiskey from a Kentucky distillery, prosecutors said Tuesday.
Leslie Wright, 34, described by prosecutors as a former security guard at Buffalo Trace Distillery, was indicted on a charge of complicity to receiving stolen property over $10,000 as prosecutors widened their net on what they say was a longtime theft ring.
Twice in December 2014, Wright was paid by Gilbert Thomas Curtsinger to “turn a blind eye” to the bourbon thefts at the distillery in Kentucky’s capital city, assistant Franklin County prosecutor Zachary M. Becker said. Eleven stainless steel barrels of whiskey were stolen in those two incidents, he said.
“It certainly did provide an easier means in order to commit this very valuable theft,” Becker said of Wright’s alleged inaction.
Wright told authorities that Curtsinger indicated to her the barrels were empty and being removed for scrap, Becker said.
One of those barrels recovered by authorities contained 17-year-old Eagle Rare bourbon valued at about $12,000, Becker said. Contents of a second barrel also were recovered, he said. Curtsinger told the buyer that the whiskey in the barrel was Eagle Rare, he said.
Bourbon coming off the still is put in new, charred oak barrels for aging, giving the whiskey its distinctive taste and colour. Becker said the whiskey is commonly put in stainless steel barrels to stop the aging process. Whiskey in the stolen steel barrels was fully aged and ready for bottling, he said.
In another sign of the theft ring’s brazenness, the thefts occurred when the distillery was open to the public for ghost tours, Becker said.
Wright is co-operating with authorities, the prosecutor said. It was not immediately clear if she has an attorney.
“There’s a possibility that there will be further indictments sought, in light of this and other information that has come to light,” Becker said.
Curtsinger’s attorney, Whitney True Lawson, declined to comment following Wright’s indictment.
A Buffalo Trace spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a phone call and email seeking comment.
Prosecutors say the scheme led by rogue distillery workers lasted for years.
The thefts targeted the Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey distilleries and included some prestigious brands, such as pricy Pappy Van Winkle bourbon.
Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton has estimated the recovered whiskey alone is worth at least $100,000.
Nine people, including Curtsinger, were indicted earlier this year as part of the alleged theft ring.
Two of them pleaded guilty recently and agreed to co-operate with prosecutors.
The earlier indictments linked the theft of barrels of Wild Turkey whiskey earlier this year and the disappearance of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon dating back to 2008 or 2009, authorities said. Pappy Van Winkle is made at the Buffalo Trace Distillery, using a family recipe that traces back to the 1800s.
Wild Turkey’s owner, Italian-based Gruppo Campari, has said there were no signs anyone broke into the warehouse where those barrels were stolen.
The investigation gained steam this year when authorities found several bourbon barrels behind a shed in Franklin County. The labeling on each barrel had been obscured. The barrels were found behind the home of Curtsinger, a longtime Buffalo Trace employee.
Kentucky is home to about 95 per cent of the world’s bourbon production, according to the Kentucky Distillers’ Association.