Like old Army buddies responding to the bugles of glorious wars past, more than 60 U.S. and state "revenooers" charged into the piney forests of one of the South's most notorious moonshine-making regions before dawn today. They arrested 33 alleged moonshiners, blew up 12 stills and proudly proclaimed the whole affair "a total team effort."
Yet, even as top federal officials termed today's raids the biggest bust in a decade, the whiskeymen of Franklin County were vowing that the "likker" business will live on.
"We work just like a groundhog," said Cecil Love, a former moonshiner whose brother was arrested today for liquor violations. "You stop up a groundhog's hole one day, he'll dig it right out the next and go back to his business."
Federal and state liquor enforcement officials said here today they have crippled the largest existing moonshine operation in the United States -- an operation that was making at least 15,000 gallons of moonshine a year and netting some big operators $7,000 a week tax-free.
In addition to today's raid, federal and state officials in southwest Virginia have seized 63 stills during the last six months, stills that were etimated to have cheated the federal government and the commonwealth of Virginia of more than $5 million in taxes.
The operation here, which will continue all week with airplane surveillance and "walk-through" searches of Franklin County's hills and hollows, represents a "nostalgia experience" for many federal agents who spent their early years chasing moonshiners, according to G. R. (Bob) Dickerson, director of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
"We had no problems getting volunteers for this (job) even though they'll be working 16 hours a day," said Dickerson.
More than 30 federal agents, some wearing fur-lined blue jackets emblazoned with "special agent" badges and all carrying revolvers, drove and flew into the area on Sunday. Old friends who hadn't seen each other since the last big liquor raid shook hands and slapped backs. "Why hello, I wouldn't have recognized you if I didn't see your gun," said one agent with a laugh as he greeted another officer in a motel lobby.
In the last 10 years, nearly all ATF agents have spent most of their time investigating fire arms and explosives violations. Moonshining, they said, was declining sharply across the country. In 1978, ATF agents destroyed just 361 stills compared to 7,432 in 1965 and 23,165 in 1932. That drop, an ATF official said last May reflected a policy that "deprioritized" the Treasury Department's war against moonshine.
While moonshine activity in the rest of the country has remained slow, Franklin County has "gotten out of hand," according to Nolan E. Douglas, ATF special agent in charge for the Richmond area. What was "deprioritized had to be reprioritized," according to federal officials.
So, federal agents, along with 20 alcohol beverage agents from Virginia and 10 agents from North Carolina, converged over the weekend on this rural county of 29,000 people for what ATF -- in special blue folders that were given to each agent -- called the "Richmond District Illicit Whiskey Task Force."
The task force met for a "team briefing" at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Henry County administration building. Agents had been assured the meeting would be over quickly so that everyone could get back to his hotel room to watch the Super Bowl.
Veteran ATF agents who say they prefer moonshine work to chasing gun-runners sat in the team briefing alongside young ATF agents who had never seen a still and were miffed that they had to come out here into the boondocks from Washington.
The agents watched a slide show depicting various stills across Franklin County, smoked cigars, were told to get two sets of fingerprints from people they arrested, and were assigned to 12 different "survey teams."
After the meeting, which was short as promised, many state and federal agents went out to buy chips, dips and beer to watch the upcoming football game. Parties ended soon after the Super Bowl because nearly everyone had to be up before dawn.
Such an assembly of federal and state agents in the Franklin County area cannot go unnoticed by moonshiners, according to long-time ABC agents here. They say sympathy toward the illicit whiskey industry in Franklin County -- where moonshine money has paid for the college education of many leading citizens -- is so strong that liquor agents can hardly make a move without moonshiners knowing it.
Cecil Love, the former moonshiner whom ABC agents say once was one of the county's biggest operators, said he heard about the big bust on Sunday when a deputy sheriff tipped him.
A Virginia ABC agent who asked not to be identified said today that he doesn't care if the moonshiners knew about the raid. "The (illicit whiskey makers) have been laying awake for six months waiting for us to strike. We don't care if they see us because we've got warrants."
Many of the government teams that took off this morning in four-wheel-drive rigs carried search warrants and arrests warrants obtained on the basis of six-month-long investigations, according to special agent Douglas.
Cecil Love's brother, Walter Carroll Love, was arrested today for selling moonshine last summer to an ATF undercover agent. Walter Love complained at the Franklin County jail this morning that his arrest was less civil than he was used to. Normally, ABC agents here simply tell moonshiners to report to the local judge on a certain day. But Love was taken to the jail in handcuffs before he was released on his own recognizance.
At 10 a.m. federal and Virginia liquor enforcement officials called a press conference in Roanoke to announced "the largest roundup of moonshine suspects in 10 years." In Washington, a Treasury announcement trumpeted the raids as ending "a multimillion dollar tax ripoff."
Federal officials said moonshine from Franklin County has been traced to various "nip joints" in West Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Moonshine was called a "menace" because it frequently contains lead salts, the result of poorly made wields on the stills. ATF director Dickerson, who flew down to Franklin County for the raids, said five people died last month in Georgia from drinking moonshine.
After the press conference, Dickerson led an auto caravan of reporters to a still near Snow Creek in Franklin County that had produced 720 gallons of moonshine a week. The still, which agents said was typical of moonshine operations in the area, had been seized on Saturday.
ATF agents waited today for the arrival of reporters before they poured 75 gallons of the clear moonshine on the ground, knifed several hundred empty plastic containers and blew up the still with TNT.
Despite today's raid, local moonshiners and liquor officials agree that conditions here remain ripe for making illicit whiskey. The price of sugar -- a key ingredient in moonshine -- remains below $30 for 100 pounds, far less than the $100 per hundredweight cost five years ago.The price of moonshine is increasing. A case (six gallons) of moonshine now costs $35 and the traditional "two-bit" or 25-cent shot now sells for "four bits" or 50 cents, in "nip joints" that sell moonshine by the drink.
In Franklin County, where moonshiners once made 3 1/2 million gallons of whiskey during a four-year stretch in the 1930s, the "likker" business remains a way of life that agents say, is tolerated by merchants and influential citizens because of moonshine's contributions to the local economy. i
Asked if he believed the illicit whiskey business here will be crippled by today's raids. ATF special agent Douglas said, "No. I really don't." b