Suspect to stand trial in theft of $102K in vintage whiskey from Scottdale home
The owner of a century-old Scottdale mansion looked squarely across the courtroom at her former employee and trusted friend on Wednesday as she angrily accused him of guzzling more than $100,000 of the vintage whiskey he had promised to safeguard.
“I stored the cases in John's (Saunders) living room in the basement so he could watch over it, and he had specific orders not to let anyone touch them. But I guess in his opinion, ‘anyone' did not mean him,” Pat Hill, owner of the South Broadway Manor Bed and Breakfast, told a district judge.
After listening to testimony from Hill and Scottdale police Chief Barry Pritts, District Judge Chuck Moore ordered John W. Saunders, 62, of Irwin to stand trial on felony charges of theft and receiving stolen property.
Hill, 57, a New York fashion model who grew up in North Huntingdon, traveled to Westmoreland County to testify at the preliminary hearing for the former caretaker of her historic home.
“John was a family friend for over 40 years,” said Hill, who alternated between anger and tears.
Saunders did not testify and declined to comment to reporters after the hearing.
However, in a March 27 interview with the Tribune-Review, he denied drinking the whiskey and said he did not “think it would even be safe to drink.”
Under questioning from Assistant District Attorney Greg DeFloria, Hill said she hired Saunders in 2011 to safeguard the former J.P. Brennan mansion on South Broadway Street. She spent more than $800,000 to convert the historic home to a bed and breakfast after purchasing it in the mid-1980s.
Earlier, Hill speculated that Brennan, known to greet guests at the door with a shot of whiskey, ordered the cases pre-Prohibition.
Hill grew angry at several points in her hourlong testimony.
In March 2012, she recalled, she invited representatives of the nearby West Overton Museum to inspect 108 antique bottles of Old Farm Pure Rye Whiskey. It had been distilled in 1912 and bottled in 1917 at West Overton Distilling Co., once owned by industrialists Henry Frick and Andrew Mellon.
Workers had found nine cases of the whiskey, still in original wooden cases, wrapped in paper inside the walls and a stairwell during the renovations. Hill said the bottles were full.
Hill recalled reaching into each case of 12 bottles to show the historians their pristine condition, despite their century of age, and feeling shock.
“One, two, three cases ... empty, empty, empty. I knew they were full before because I had to get workers to help me move them into John's basement apartment because they were so heavy,” Hill said.
“I looked around and there was John sitting right there in his recliner watching, and I looked over at him, and he said, ‘They must have evaporated,' ” Hill testified.
“I knew he was lying and that he had drunk them when I got to the fourth case and pulled out four empty, unwrapped bottles. And there were still eight inside that were full and still had the wrappings on them. We found one empty bottle that had a cigarette butt in the bottom,” Hill said.
“I wouldn't have cared if he drank my 1998 bottle of Dom Perignon that I kept upstairs. He had full access to the bar in the home that was one floor above him, but he just sat down there and drank this,” Hill said, pointing to a wrapped, unopened bottle she brought to the hearing as evidence.
She said four other cases were untouched.
“He hadn't gotten to them yet,” she said.
Hill said she fired Saunders and notified police, who asked her to get an appraisal. She testified that she forwarded four full bottles to Bonham's auction house in New York City where a specialist estimated the value of unopened bottles in good condition at about $2,500 apiece.
Pritts, the police chief, said that based on the Bonham's appraisal, he estimated the value of the whiskey that Saunders allegedly drank at $102,400.
Pritts testified that he sent 51 empty bottles to the state police laboratory for DNA analysis, and the laboratory tested three bottles.
“DNA detected on the lip of each bottle matched Mr. Saunders' saliva,” Pritts said.
Saunders' attorney, public defender Patrice DiPietro, asked Moore to dismiss the case. She argued the estimate of the whiskey's value “is pure speculation.”
But Moore disagreed and ordered Saunders to stand trial.
Hill wiped tears from her cheeks as she left the courtroom after the hearing.
“I think justice was served here beautifully. DNA doesn't lie,” Hill said.
Hill said she doubts she will get restitution.
“I just hope John gets the help he needs out of this,” she said. “But it's still hard going through this. John was like a brother to me.”
Saunders remains free on bond.
Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or firstname.lastname@example.org.