It’s Thanksgiving week here in the United States, a time to relax, enjoy, and be grateful. But that’s not always easy to do in these difficult times.
Do you need something to take your mind off worries about the election, Covid-19, and the Seattle Seahawk’s unpredictable defense? We have just the thing: a dramatic wine crime story. Here is a flashback to Thanksgiving 2013: The Wine Economist’s report on the Great Seattle Thanksgiving Day Wine Heist.
Wine Economist: CSI Fine Wine Edition
- Crime doesn’t pay.
- The best way to make a small fortune in the wine business is to start with a big one.
What happens when you combine these two old sayings? Well, you would think that it would add up to the fact that if crime doesn’t pay, then wine crime really doesn’t pay. But that may not be true. How else can we explain the recent fine wine crime wave, which may well be just the tip of the iceberg.
Wine Crime Wave?
Most of the attention has been focused on Rudi Kurniawan’s recent conviction for wine fraud — the first federal criminal prosecution and conviction for wine counterfeiting. This dramatic crime and the revealing trial has really captured the public’s imagination in part, I think, because of the romance associated with rare wine and the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” environment of the crime, the criminal and the victims.
There’s also a bit of what you might call a “Lance Armstrong” effect. The crime went on for years along with accusations, defenses and denials. Then suddenly there was the trial, the conviction and the house of cards collapsed. Now we are left to wonder how widespread this sort of wine fraud might be and what wines are true and which are false. The conviction isn’t the end of the story, only the beginning of the next chapter in the mystery.
Thanksgiving Day Heist
The Thanksgiving Day wine heist in Seattle was a grittier affair but perhaps equally interesting to wine crime buffs. I’ve been trying to piece together what happened from published reports and private sources. The more I learn about it the more this crime reminds me of something from a television show — CSI or maybe Mission Impossible!
Here is what I think I know.
Two “common thieves” (plumbers by trade, according to the Seattle Police) broke into the wine storage facility operated by Esquin wine merchants in the SoDo neighborhood (SoDo stands for South of the Dome — the Kingdome sports stadium in this case, which was demolished by implosion in 2000). They ransacked 15 of the 450 private storage lockers in the climate-controlled facility and made off with more than 200 cases of wine valued at more than $600,000.
If you are doing the math, that’s an average of more than $3000 per case or more than $250 per bottle. I’m guessing that no Two Buck Chuck was taken!
The break-in was ingenious — the perpetrators apparently cut a hole through a wall and brought the wine out case by case. Police report that the crooks spent 13 hours selecting their wines and then driving the loot to another warehouse less than a mile away. Their SUV getaway vehicle had limited capacity, so they had to make 9 round trips. Although they blacked out all the security cameras that they could, apparently this was not completely successful and some images of the crooks and their SUV’s license plate were captured.
You would think that “common thieves” would not be terribly discriminating wine shoppers — after all I suspect that most of the bottles and cases at this storage facility were of some value. Why not just smash and grab? But that’s not what happened.
Making a List, Checking it Twice
The bad guys apparently worked from some sort of shopping list, taking specific wines and vintages and leaving the rest. I’m told that the only Washington State wines taken were Quilceda Creek and Corliss, for example. Leonetti and Andrew Will? Apparently not up the discerning crook’s standards! I understand that wine was not just stolen, but also moved around and mixed up during the extended shopping spree and a few of the victims are apparently having to sort out which wines are theirs and which belong to someone else as well as which bottles have gone missing.
A good old-fashioned paper trail of evidence helped solve the crime and now opens the door to other possible heists. The first criminal captured had apparently kept receipts from a home improvement store — great idea in case you need to return an item! — and police used the day/time information on the paper to access security camera footage showing the suspect and his accomplice buying the hardware used in the criminal act.
According to the Seattle Times a second paper trail opens the door to an earlier wine crime.
A shipping label found in Harris’ wine-storage locker led detectives to a San Francisco wine consultant, who told police he purchased $100,000 of wine from Harris and another man in April or May, charging papers say. Through an online search, Detective Don Jones determined there had been a large wine theft in the Bay Area in March, the papers say.
Covering Their Tracks
A KOMO news report added a another Mission Impossible-style detail about the carefully plotted plan to crack the wine storage facility.
New details from the charging documents filed Monday reveal police found a journal labeled “The Plan” in Harris’ SUV. The journal reportedly included a step-by-step guide to the crime, a list of needed equipment, steps to destroy any evidence, steps to ship the wine and how to leave the country.
In addition, police found a book titled “Thinking About Crime,” as well as printed out documents called “Is it Accidental Fire or Arson?” and “How to Commit the Perfect Crime,” inside Harris’ house, according to the charging documents.
Where does the arson come in? Well, the thieves planned to cover their tracks in the most comprehensive possible way. They cut gas lines and expected the building to blow up. Good fortune prevented any loss of life and good police work captured the criminals. Some of the victims are more upset about the idea of the flaming cover-up plan with its potentially tragic consequences than the actual robbery.
So case closed for now — the thieves in custody and a good chance that most of the wine (minus one empty Champagne bottle) has been recovered. But are these two common thieves the whole story? Or is there a criminal mastermind (not necessarily Rudi K) still at large making up a shopping lists for clients too smart to buy fakes but maybe not too smart to avoid stolen goods? Good question!
So welcome to the new era of wine crime where the questions a fine wine enthusiast needs to answer now range from red or white and Burgundy or Bordeaux all the way to real or fake, stolen or legit? Cheers!
Fun story Mike – ( perhaps less so for those who lost wine !) – however almost prefer this type of old fashioned crime compared to more subtle ” con ” jobs which are also in play in our world of wine.
Mike, I always enjoy your column and this was a lot of fun. Good comic relief in these challenging times. Happy Thanksgiving!
Kinda nice, old-fashioned bank heist story!! Try this one for a twist: Shadows in the Vineyard (Twelve Books/Hachette, 2014) by Maximillian Potter. True story about holding vineyard at Domaine de la Romanee-Conti as hostage! Lots of insight into the Domaine and the French police. Oh yes, history lessons too. C’est French after all!
Thoroughly enjoy your column these days! Happy Thanksgiving!
Good detail that I never heard before Mike. Makes my wonder when it will happen at my wine storage location?
Apparently a severe storm hit a big Bergen, NJ wine storage facility recently, damaging both personal and trade account wines. Nothing is safe anymore!
forgot about this story!! Very amusing in a weird way….Mission Impossible gone awry…BTW, I thought SoDo stands for South of Downtown, just as LoDo in Denver stands for Lower Downtown… Never heard the South of Dome one