Scottdale judge delays hearing as defendant claims he never downed vintage booze worth $102K
The former caretaker of a century-old mansion in Scottdale denies he guzzled $102,400 worth of historic whiskey that he was entrusted to safeguard.
“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,” said John W. Saunders, 63, of 513 Eighth St., Irwin.
“The charges are totally false and I plan to fight it,” he said Wednesday outside the office of Scottdale District Judge Chuck Moore.
Saunders asked for a delay of his preliminary hearing on charges of receiving stolen property and theft so he can apply for a public defender. Moore granted the continuance until May 15.
His former boss, Patricia Hill of New York, hired Saunders in 2011 to safeguard the former J. P. Brennan mansion at 700 S. Broadway St. in Scottdale after it was converted to a bed and breakfast and suspected he had drunk 52 bottles of the Old Farm Pure Rye Whiskey.
The whiskey was distilled in 1912 and bottled in 1917 at the West Overton Distilling Co. Workers found nine cases of the whiskey, still in its original wooden cases, wrapped in paper inside the walls and a stairwell during an $800,000 renovation of the mansion into South Broadway Manor Bed and Breakfast.
In March 2012, Hill discovered that someone had drunk four cases of the whiskey and placed the empty bottles back in the slots.
Based on an appraisal of four full bottles by Bonhams, a renowned auction house in New York City, police estimated the value of the 52 bottles at $102,400.
Bonhams' specialist for “whisky” and rare spirits said bottles of Old Farm are valuable as long as the corks remain sealed and the whiskey is untouched.
Scottdale police Chief Barry Pritts said DNA the thief left on the lips of the empty bottles matched a DNA sample taken from Saunders last year.
Saunders downplayed the forensic evidence.
“I moved those cases three times for (Pat) Hill. ... I can't believe she would accuse me of doing that. I have nothing to hide,” he said. “I've been friends with Pat and her family, who were from the Irwin area, for 40 years, and I just can't believe she would accuse me of this.”
When police questioned him after the empty bottles were discovered in March 2012, Saunders said the old liquor had “evaporated.” He repeated that explanation Wednesday, maintaining the whiskey would not have “been any good.”
Saunders disputed the value Bonhams placed on the whiskey, which was made at the distillery once owned by legendary industrialists Henry Frick and Andrew Mellon.
“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.
Rick Bruckner, the innkeeper and executive chef at South Broadway Manor, said the story of the missing whiskey has generated national and international headlines since it was first reported by the Tribune-Review last week.
“I just did an interview yesterday with a newspaper reporter from London, England,” Bruckner said. “The interest in this story has been just amazing.”
Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or firstname.lastname@example.org.