Skip to comments.Moonshine Suspects To Face Trial
Posted on 09/08/2001 9:35:10 PM PDT by Church Lady
By CHRIS KAHN Associated Press Writer
ROANOKE, Va. (AP) For generations, state agents have chased moonshiners in rural parts of Virginia, raiding chicken coops, tobacco barns and old warehouses for the illegal brew.
The strong country whiskey, synonymous with Appalachian culture, has made millionaires of families who've quietly produced hooch in these hills, shipping it north to shot houses in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
But with guilty pleas from some of the region's biggest bootleggers, police now are claiming a major victory against the industry.
On Monday, seven more alleged moonshiners will be in federal court, facing charges in what has become the most comprehensive moonshine investigation in Appalachia. Twelve people already have pleaded guilty, and only one defendant, Ralph Hale Sr., maintains his innocence.
Investigators hope Operation Lightning Strike, a collaboration of federal and state agents in Virginia and North Carolina, puts a lasting dent in a tradition that has remained strong in the region.
``If it doesn't ... we're in trouble,'' said Jack Allen Powell, 67, a retired agent of Virginia's Alcohol Beverage Control Board. ``As long as there's stuff to ferment, there's someone looking to make moonshine.'
' Authorities estimate that moonshiners produced an estimated 1.5 million gallons of liquor from 1992 to 1999, ducking $19.6 million in federal taxes.
Franklin County, a rural area 200 miles southwest of Richmond where Hale's business allegedly thrived, embraces its moonshining tradition. T-shirts proudly proclaim the county the ``Moonshine Capital of the World.'' A high school wrestling tournament is called the Moonshine Classic. An annual charity race is named the White Lightning Run.
Whiskey first came to the mountains with Scots-Irish settlers, who mixed sugar and yeast into a tough brew. ``Moonshining,'' so named because the clandestine activity was often conducted under cover of darkness, thrived during Prohibition. White lightning flowed into speakeasies and nip joints everywhere.
In the 1950s, just about everyone in rural Virginia kept a little bottle underneath their sinks, said Powell, who wrote a book about moonshine in 1996 called ``A Dying Art.'' The untaxed stuff was cheap. And in the cities, there was just something about illicit home brew that was so much better than the rotgut you'd find in stores.
``But if you ever saw how that stuff is made, you'd never drink it,'' said Bart McEntire, a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. ``They were using old truck radiators as stills. They were using water from creeks that cattle walked through.''
Unregulated moonshine has been contaminated with anything from lye to traces of radiator fluid. But the black market continued as people from the South moved above the Mason-Dixon line.
``They never forgot where they came from,'' Powell said. ``There's something about a little bottle of moonshine ... there's a mystique there.''
It's also a cheap way to get drunk at 100 proof, or 50 percent alcohol, and $20 to $30 a gallon, McEntire said.
Authorities allege Hale, believed to be one of the biggest moonshiners in Virginia, made 213,780 gallons of moonshine with his family from 1992 to 1999. In an effort to hide the profits, including $2.9 million in unpaid federal taxes, investigators claim Hale bought property in family members' names and ran a small cattle ranch with his wife.
Hale, 61, his son Ralph Hale Jr., 22, and sister Shirley Hale Whitlow, 53, are accused of illegal production of untaxed liquor, money laundering, and other federal offenses. Hale's wife, Judy, 49, and two others face charges for minor roles in illegal moonshine operations.
Hale's defense attorney, state Sen. W. Roscoe Reynolds, did not return repeated calls to his law firm.
Hale has been arrested at least seven times for moonshining. But Virginia's penalties are minimal from minor fines and probation to a rarely imposed three years in prison and a $1,000 fine.
What has made Operation Lightning Strike successful is that federal authorities have a wider variety of charges in their arsenal, said Bev Whitmer, a special agent with Virginia ABC based in Roanoke.
If convicted, Hale could face almost a lifetime in jail and millions in fines. Instead of taking their chances in court, most of those snared decided to plead guilty, forfeiting property and cooperating with ongoing investigations against other moonshiners.
The operation has proved decisive in choking off supplies of moonshine, nearly doubling the price of untaxed liquor in some cities. Prices for a case in Philadelphia, for example, have increased in recent years from $65 a case to $100, McEntire said.
``I'm not being naive and telling you that it's gone, though,'' McEntire said. ``There'll always be someone here trying to make a buck.''
Including the "revenooers".
"We must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt. We must make our selection between economy and liberty or profusion and servitude. If we run into such debts as that we must be taxed in our meat in our drink, in our necessities and comforts, in our labors and in our amusements, for our callings and our creeds...our people.. must come to labor sixteen hours in the twenty-four, give earnings of fifteen of these to the government for their debts and daily expenses; and the sixteenth being insufficient to afford us bread, we must live.. We have not time to think, no means of calling the mismanagers to account, but be glad to obtain subsistence by hiring ourselves to rivet their chains on the necks of our fellow suffers. Our landholders, too...retaining indeed the title and stewardship of estates called theirs, but held really in trust for the treasury, must...be contented with penury, obscurity and exile..private fortunes are destroyed by public as well as by private extravagance. This is the tendancy of all human governments. A departure from principle becomes a precedent for a second; that second for a third; and so on, till the bulk of society is reduced to mere automatons of misery, to have no sensibilities left but for sinning and suffering... And the fore horse of this frightful team is public debt. Taxation follows that, and in it's train wretchedness and oppression." -- Thomas Jefferson
Ya gotta love rural folk.
When I was a stripling lad, I helped run off 30 gallons of moonshine in rural British Columbia that was smoother than premium rye. It was beautiful whiskey. Once you diluted it a little , to 40% or so alcohol content, anyone could drink it straight-up without mixing it...no gagging. That could get you drunk in a hurry!
Of course, bootlegging and homemade booze is a Canadian tradition. Home-made hootch keeps you warm at hockey games, eh?
You can ferment your own mash to make beer or wine, but DISTILLING it is illegal.
Don't believe in this silly gov. propaganda...
Glad to be back on FR. I was terribly busy all day. Just finished work half an hour ago.
It sounds more like a setup coming for more property seizures around the nearby UN Biosphere, in concert with CARA.
I've known real moonshiners in the past that made the stuff for economic survival in order to feed their families. They claim that this art of wiskey making is some of the most expensive, risky and, back-breaking work that could be ever concieved.
Sure, it's still made in the rural South; but, it's my experience that it's mostly persued as a hobby of tradition, for self consumption; and, trade to close friends that appreciate the art of it.
[The FReeper, Ratcat] had an excellent map of the UN Biosphere area posted on his FR thread last week.
I sure hope that Ratcat answers this post and, posts the map of The Southern Appalachian Biosphere again on this thread for all to see.
Then maybe, we won't be so fast to believe the government police agencies in their propaganda, aided by the socialist news wires.
Moonshining is simply not an economically viable business anymore.
This is definitely "news" contrived to feed the sheeple on the East Coast, to make the land grabbing to follow more palatable.
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Moonshine is still around, and still pretty good. One problem, not on this particular case, is making moonshine for your own consumption illegal?
Distilling your own alcohol is still illegal; you have to get all kinds of permits and pay lots of taxes.
You can brew your own beer, wine, cider, mead, and other fermented alcoholic beverages, for your own personal use (they changed the law to allow this some time back in the 70's or 80's). For some reason, the federales did not legalize home distilling when they legalized home brewing. I guess they figured that the BATF might get pissed off if they removed one of "their" prime reasons for existing.
One can't help thinking that if home distilling were legal, that what little moonshining that remained would virtually disappear. There can't be that much of an economic incentive to moonshine; legal booze is pretty darn cheap as is. Nostalgia for moonshine could be quickly cured by hobbiests allowed to legally set up their own home stills for purely home consumption.
The most creative thing I believe I have ever seen was when I was a kid and the Yadkin County, NC sheriff conficated a "mobile" still. He put it on display at the court house when they brought it in. It was an old ton truck with the mash vat, etc. mounted on the bed. I will admit it looked nasty because yellow jackets, flies, etc. decided they wanted "a little drank" out of the vat. It was mid-summer I think. What the heck. I guess distilling would kill anything bad in the mash.
For once I was in the right place at the right time to see this masterpiece of engineering.
You know, the BATF propaganda always manages to shoot itself in the foot when looked at in detail.
$19.5 million lost from tax revenue over the years pales when you compare the tax revenue they consume.
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