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Charges dropped of theft of century-old whiskey in Westmoreland County as suspect dies

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Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014, 11:06 p.m.
 

A caretaker who was charged with drinking century-old whiskey hidden away in the mansion of a former coal baron has died, effectively ending the criminal case against him.

John W. Saunders, 63, formerly of Irwin, was charged with theft and receiving stolen property for allegedly consuming 52 bottles of the vintage whiskey, which he denied.

Saunders died on July 21, according to court records. A week later, Westmoreland County Judge Rita Hathaway dismissed the case after she learned of his death from an assistant district attorney.

Saunders was the live-in caretaker at the former J.P. Brennan mansion in Scottdale when its new owner, Patricia Hill of New York, discovered more than 100 bottles of Old Farm Pure Rye Whiskey in its original wooden cases hidden in a staircase and under the floor during renovations.

The pre-Prohibition whiskey was distilled in 1912 and bottled five years later at West Overton Distilling Co. in nearby West Overton, once owned by industrialists Henry Frick and Andrew Mellon.

Hill, a longtime friend of Saunders, told police she found that someone had drunk the contents from five of the nine cases. Genetic testing found traces of Saunders' DNA on all 52 empty whiskey bottles, according to court records.

At the time of Saunders' arrest, Hill said the consumed bottles were valued at $102,000.

Court records show that in September 2013, Hill submitted a $75,000 restitution bill in which she claimed each of the five cases was worth $15,000.

“I didn't get a dime. There was no insurance,” Hill said Tuesday.

At his preliminary hearing last spring, Saunders denied sipping the whiskey.

“Yuck! That stuff had floaters in it and all kind of stuff inside the bottles. ... I don't think it would even be safe to drink,” Saunders told the Tribune-Review.

“I think Pat's ... looking for money. I'd say that whiskey's real value is about $10 a bottle and she hired someone to inflate the price. ... That whiskey was there for years and years, kept in a stinky, dirty basement and probably has gone through flooding and all,” Saunders said.

The remaining cases of whiskey are on display behind security glass at the mansion, which is now a bed-and-breakfast. Hill said she wants the empty bottles back from police to donate to a museum.

“I guess in the end all the news coverage has helped the business. ... It wasn't a total loss,” Hill said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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