Caretaker accused of chugging history
The mystery of the missing whiskey has all the elements of a page-turner: a beautiful estate, a century in time, a thirsty thief and a bit of DNA on the lip of a bottle.
The story began to unfold in 2012, when Patricia Hill of New York bought a turn-of-the-century mansion in Scottdale built by J.P. Brennan, a coal and coke industrialist. During an $800,000 renovation to convert it into South Broadway Manor Bed and Breakfast, Hill discovered hidden in the walls and stairwell nine cases of Old Farm Pure Rye Whiskey bottled in 1912 at the West Overton Distilling Co. in nearby West Overton.
“My guess is that Mr. Brennan ordered 10 cases … pre-Prohibition,” Hill said. “I was told by his family that family members used to greet him at the door each day with a shot of whiskey.”
The live-in caretaker, 62-year-old John W. Saunders of Irwin, helped Hill move and dust off the whiskey several times.
One day, Hill found there was little left to dust.
Now Saunders is charged by Scottdale police with receiving stolen property and theft for allegedly drinking 52 bottles of Old Farm whiskey appraised at $102,400 by Bonhams, the renowned New York auction house.
“This whole experience has shocked me,” Hill said. “I was shocked when I found them, shocked to find Mr. Saunders drank them, and shocked when I received the appraisal. I had just planned to preserve them.”
Hill told police Chief Barry Pritts that she stored the whiskey in a living room in the nine original cases, each containing 12 bottles. After Saunders moved out, Hill discovered last March that the bottles in four cases were empty.
“The corks were removed or a hole punched through the bottom half to get the whiskey out. The labels were pulled off many ... bottles and are now in the bottom of the cases,” Pritts said in court documents.
“Patricia Hill knows that the bottles were full and undamaged about one year ago. She suspects John Saunders drank the whiskey,” he wrote.
When police questioned Saunders, he denied drinking the whiskey, Pritts said. “Saunders said the whiskey probably evaporated and, being that it was old, was probably no good.”
Pritts said Saunders agreed to provide a DNA sample but never showed up to have a cheek swabbed. Late last year, police got a search warrant and, finally, a DNA sample.
“The DNA profile obtained from John William Saunders matched the DNA profile obtained from the mouth of three of the (empty) whiskey bottles,” Pritts said.
Joseph Hyman of Bonhams, a specialist for “whisky” and rare spirits, said he appraised four sealed bottles that Hill provided, not the damaged ones.
“Those bottles were distilled in 1912 and bottled in 1917 — that's pre-Prohibition. The fact that those bottles survived, hidden in a wall of that estate and discovered during renovation, gives it some historic value,” Hyman said.
“Just the fact that ... the distillery was owned by industrialists Henry Frick and Andrew Mellon ... also gives it some historical value,” he said.
For collectors, Hyman said, the history and quality of the packaging, bottles and labeling “is the allure.” The whiskey may be drinkable, “but that is not the allure.”
“If the condition is pristine, a bottle of that era can command $1,000 and the whiskey is still drinkable,” he said. “But once that seal is broken and the bottle is opened ... the value is pretty much nil.”
Hyman said he gave an appraisal for the four sealed bottles, and police multiplied that by the total number to reach the $102,400 figure.
Bob DeCroo of the Pittsburgh Antique Bottle Club, who has appeared on “Pittsburgh's Hidden Treasures,” said sealed bottles have some value — “maybe $100 or $200 per bottle.”
“But you can quote me that I think that appraisal is exorbitant,” he said. “No reasonable collector really cares about the whiskey, but it's the condition of the bottle, labels. It certainly would be valuable, but not to that degree.
“It would be drinkable, but if that seal is broken, you could even run into botulism,” DeCroo said.
Saunders is scheduled to appear for a preliminary hearing on Wednesday before District Judge Chuck Moore.
Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or email@example.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Police gather in Ligonier for Perryopolis officer’s funeral
- Arbitration decides Westmoreland court workers’ pact
- United Way surplus funds benefit 9 nonprofits in Westmoreland County
- Penn Township man who shot friend gets probation
- Youngwood fire department reaches out to homeless family
- Hempfield leaders kill zoning request for townhomes
- Mt. Pleasant man charged with unlawful restraint
- 11 Westmoreland inmates accused of setting fire put in solitary confinement
- Plenty of ‘pain’ to share, as Westmoreland County budget OK’d with $8M in cuts
- Unity name excised from Latrobe parks, recreation
- Sewickley Twp. to pay $10K for service breach