Ingrained in Culture of 'Liquor Country'

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 8, 2008

ROCKY MOUNT, Va. -- It was so quiet out in the country, the officers didn't want to make a sound. Lying in the woods, huddled in sleeping bags, they couldn't use their cars or even turn on a light.

The moonshiners might see them.

The officers, from the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, had been pursuing a prominent local businessman for years. At last, a tip had led them to a distillery. Silently, from across the road, they watched who came and went. They sneaked in a surveillance camera. The moonshiners had counter-surveillance cameras of their own.

The cat-and-mouse game that played out less than four hours from the nation's capital culminated in a raid in which ABC officials, joined by sheriff's deputies and federal agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, burst into a barn on the rural property and found four large silver-colored pots used to make moonshine -- cheap, powerful, illegal whiskey. That led to the largest federal moonshine case in southwestern Virginia in years and a 31-count indictment filed in November in federal court in Roanoke.

People have always enjoyed their liquor in rural Franklin County, which calls itself the "moonshine capital of the world," a slogan seen on billboards and T-shirts and even at a moonshine exhibit on the campus of a local Methodist college. A late-1990s federal-state crackdown, Operation Lightning Strike, slowed the liquor trade considerably.

Federal officials say it has yet to recover. But the ABC says moonshining is starting to make a comeback as moonshiners, who have been known to hide their stills behind fake headstones in cemeteries and camouflage them with green paint in the woods, adapt to the scrutiny.

"I could give you a list about as long as your arm of people who I know are in the business full time right now," said Buddy Driskill, special agent in charge of the ABC's Lynchburg office. Driskill says the District and Baltimore are prime destinations for the untaxed and unlicensed liquor, named after 18th-century bootleggers who smuggled brandy off the British coast by the light of the moon. These days, people consume moonshine in illicit establishments known as shot houses and "nip joints."

"They're making a whole lot of liquor," Driskill said.

Jay Calhoun is determined to stop them. A burly ABC agent who wears a John Deere cap, olive-colored overalls and mud-caked boots, Calhoun lives among the moonshiners near Rocky Mount, a community of about 5,000 in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, 25 miles south of Roanoke.

"They know us, and we know them," said Calhoun, 50, a former game warden and narcotics officer who heads the ABC's three-person illegal whiskey unit. The familiarity is such that a moonshining suspect once called and offered to give Calhoun a ride to court for the trial. Another time, Calhoun bumped into a "still hand," the person who runs the stills and stirs the sugar, barley and other ingredients used to make moonshine.

"I was in this little country store getting a can of sardines or pinto beans or something, and he was buying the same thing," Calhoun said. "I knew where he was going, and he knew I was going in to work, too."

With his partner, Randall Toney, 57, Calhoun operates out of a tiny, unmarked two-room office with dirt all over the floor and surveillance equipment packed into a corner. Many nights, the agents drive the rural roads of Franklin County, looking for stills in what's known as "liquor country." When they zero in on a target, they spend weeks, even months, in the woods, dressed in camouflage, silently watching what at first might be nothing more than an intersection.

If the same car keeps coming and going, the next night they'll move a few yards up the road. And so on, until they get to a still.

"This one time, a possum tried to get in my sleeping bag," Calhoun recalled. "It was cold as heck."

Because moonshine is so ingrained in the culture and history of the region, the industry is clannish. Agents rarely find cooperators. Maybe once a year, they'll get a call with the precise location of a still.

Although Calhoun won't say how or when, at some point that call came in about Jody Alton "Duck" Smith.

Smith, 60, is a lifelong Franklin County resident and a car dealer with a penchant for community service. Known as Duck, a nickname his mother gave him, he supports the local volunteer fire department and wears a Santa hat in the Christmas parade, throwing candy to children, friends say. He also hands out free hats -- and shot glasses -- at the auto show.

"Jody has been very community-minded," said Dorothy Cundiff, managing director of a local merchants association.

A 1998 raid hinted at a possible other side. The ABC uncovered and destroyed a large whiskey still in the basement of a garage on property owned by Smith, agents said. And court records show that Smith testified before a federal grand jury in 2000 during the Lightning Strike investigation.

"He was not a new name to us, going back years," said Bart McEntire, resident agent in charge of the ATF's Roanoke office.

Surveillance of the still in the current case took months. Court records show that ABC agents installed a camera across the street from the still, which was near a wildlife preserve in Halifax County. Smith was frequently seen by agents at the location, the records say. When ABC and ATF agents raided the still in May 2006, they found 1,728 one-gallon jugs used to hold liquor, 600 pounds of sugar and 50 pounds of barley, according to the indictment handed down Nov. 8 in U.S. District Court in Roanoke.

Smith and five others were charged with operating the distillery and running a moonshine pipeline that extended as far north as Philadelphia. They have pleaded not guilty.

William Lindsey, an attorney for Smith, said his client denies the charges but hasn't had much else to say. "Folks around the alleged illegal liquor business don't talk much, God bless 'em," Lindsey said.

Smith did not respond to messages left at Smith's Auto Sales in Redwood, a small community just outside Rocky Mount.

Investigators said the Halifax distillery, much like all moonshine pipelines, operated like a drug organization. Tightly controlled by someone at the top, distilleries employ still hands and transporters, who move the liquor in vans or trucks with campers. It is then delivered to a wholesaler, or perhaps a broker, who finds customers.

Many moonshine consumers are in the District, Baltimore and other cities near Interstate 95, officials said, but cases are almost never prosecuted in the Washington area because the focus is on people who make the liquor, not those who drink it.

The operation Smith is accused of heading "wasn't little Snuffy Smith with a little old still coming out of the woods, and I'm making four gallons of liquor and me and mama are sharing it on the porch," McEntire said. "This was putting out over 1,000 gallons of a week. That's a significant amount of liquor." Agents estimated that the operation probably cleared at least $6,000 a week.

Since Prohibition, southwestern Virginia has been a hub of moonshine production, along with North Carolina and a few other Southern states. The tradition extends to the English and Scotch-Irish colonists who settled western Virginia and made grain-based whiskey and the Germans who specialized in apple brandy. When Franklin County was formed in 1786, the first county court met in a house with a tavern.

"All the people who settled this region came with a distilling history, if you will," said Vaughan Webb, assistant director of the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum at Ferrum College near Rocky Mount. The institute has become known as the "moonshine museum" because a current exhibit, "White Liquor, Blue Ridge Style," is its most popular ever.

"People try to portray us as country bumpkins, but we're proud of being rednecks, and we're proud of the craft of making liquor," said Linda Stanley, the fast-talking special projects coordinator for the Franklin County Historical Society. "Around here, people still talk about the War Between the States, they still talk about making apple butter and they still talk about moonshine."

The society sponsors an annual Moonshine Express tour.

By the 1990s, authorities were seizing 10 to 15 large liquor stills a year in Franklin and neighboring counties. Although the crackdown has reduced that number to a few each year, ABC agents and some locals said the industry is coming back. "Moonshine is all over. They make it up in the mountains, in trailers, everywhere," said John Wilson, a lifelong Franklin County resident.

Like other residents, Wilson said he loves moonshine because with no federal or state taxes, it's cheaper than some store-bought liquor, and the raw, firelike taste is distinctive. He also had kind words for Smith, saying that the government should leave him alone. "What's the big deal? It's just some people getting drunk," Wilson said.

Agents and experts in the liquor trade said that because it's unregulated, moonshine has been found to contain lead, pesticides and other dangerous substances. "I've seen cows basically go to the bathroom in a creek and then that same water be run through a still to make liquor," McEntire said.

He added: "I think the only reason people like moonshine is because it has that mystical connotation from movies and the media. And this whole myth thing does nothing but just tick me off. They're crooks. A crook is a crook."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company