Caretaker accused of chugging history
By Paul Peirce
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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