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Ringleader Pleads Guilty in “Pappygate” Bourbon Thefts

September 21, 2017 – And then there was one…one remaining defendant left in Kentucky’s “Pappygate” scandal involving the insider thefts of more than $100,000 worth of whiskey from Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey distilleries. Gilbert “Toby” Curtsinger is no longer the “alleged” ringleader of the group behind the thefts following his guilty pleas Wednesday in Franklin Circuit Court, and faces a 15-year prison sentence. Curtsinger pleaded guilty to reduced charges in a deal with prosecutors and has agreed to testify against the one remaining defendant, former Wild Turkey truck driver Mark Sean Searcy, assuming that Searcy’s case goes to trial.

“This was a decision made by my client so that he can find some peace and resolution to this,” attorney Whitney Lawson told reporters in the courthouse after the hearing. The 47-year-old former Buffalo Trace employee was one of nine defendants indicted by a grand jury in 2015 after sheriff’s deputies found five full barrels of stolen whiskey at his home, along with guns, anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, and needles. Last year, Curtsinger’s wife, Julie Curtsinger, entered a so-called “Alford plea” to two drug-related misdemeanor charges. While an “Alford plea” does not admit wrongdoing, it acknowledges that prosecutors have enough evidence to secure a conviction. That plea also led to charges being dropped against her father, Robert McKinney, another suspect facing charges in the case.

“I think that this is a just and fair resolution of this case considering everything involved,” Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Zach Becker told WhiskyCast in a telephone interview. “We have Mr. Searcy who is still yet to be resolved…of course, we’re still working to either get that a new trial date or have a resolution, but hopefully, one of those occurs in the near future, and then after that, we’ll bring everybody in to be sentenced,” he said. Searcy remains accused of taking barrels of Wild Turkey whiskey he was supposed to deliver to one of the distillery’s warehouses and giving them to Curtsinger in exchange for a share of the profits.

Gilbert Curtsinger’s plea makes eight “Pappygate” defendants who have pleaded guilty before going to trial and agreed to testify against their co-conspirators. In addition to the nine originally indicted, a tenth defendant was later indicted and pleaded guilty. Former Buffalo Trace security guard Leslie Wright admitted to taking money from Curtsinger on two occasions to ignore him and another man stealing barrels of whiskey from the distillery. The defendants sold some of their stolen whiskey out of their car trunks at area softball games, and according to court documents, the former police chief of Georgetown, Kentucky bought a barrel of whiskey from the group. Greg Reeves cooperated with investigators and was not charged in the case, nor have other customers who bought whiskey from the group and later came forward to work with investigators.

In addition to the five barrels of stolen Bourbon found at the Curtsinger family’s home, the thefts included 195 bottles of the 2013 edition of Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20-year-old Bourbon and 27 bottles of Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye. The whiskey was stolen from pallets in a Buffalo Trace warehouse in the fall of 2013, and the thieves attempted to  mask their heist by removing cases of whiskey from the interior stacks on a pallet so that no one would notice them missing until after they had been shipped from the distillery. Gilbert Curtsinger worked at the distillery for 26 years, and had access to the loading docks and warehouses. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, Curtsinger’s attorney claimed Wednesday that her client was not involved in the 2013 Pappy Van Winkle thefts, but Zach Becker notes that the plea agreement Curtsinger signed specifically includes theft and distribution of more than 250 bottles of “Pappy.”

“When you think of Kentucky…you think about Kentucky basketball, you think about Kentucky Fried Chicken, you think of horse racing, and you think of Bourbon,” Becker said. “This is a case that has certainly captured everybody’s sense of the romanticism of the Bourbon industry, and kind of also the dark side of it at times.”

While the final case in “Pappygate” plays itself out, the stolen whiskey seized by sheriff’s deputies remains in a secure location as evidence. Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate will issue a ruling on the fate of that whiskey after all of the defendants have been sentenced, and is likely to order that the whiskey be safely destroyed. Becker notes there have been discussions with Buffalo Trace, the Van Winkle family, and Wild Turkey on what should eventually be done with the whiskey, and that environmental safety concerns will also be taken into account.

Becker provided WhiskyCast with a complete list of the whiskies seized during the case:

  • 21 wooden barrels of whiskey – according to Becker, “some full and a few empty”
  • 1 stainless steel barrel of Eagle Rare 17
  • the contents of three barrels that had been bottled by purchasers, and
  • 28 bottles of various Van Winkle whiskies.

“As a Bourbon collector myself and a Bourbon whiskey fan, I hate to think that it’s going to have to go down a drain, but if that’s what required, and what’s required by law, then we’ll have to buck up,” Becker said, while laughing that he hopes to at least be able to smell some of the “angels share.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated with additional information on the whiskies being held as evidence in the Pappygate case.

Links: Old Rip Van Winkle | Buffalo Trace | Wild Turkey