ROANOKE, Va. (AP) — Virginia's one-of-a-kind Illegal Whiskey Unit — a team of agents dedicated to busting up bootleg stills — has fallen prey to state budget woes, leaving southwest Virginia's elusive moonshiners without a full-time, dedicated foe for the first time in decades.
The whiskey unit based in Franklin County, long considered the "moonshine capital of the world," once numbered as many as five agents with expertise in the illicit liquor trade, and their mission — perhaps quixotic — was to quash moonshining. Now, the team is down to a lone member, and he's a part-timer.
While southwest Virginia's backwoods distillers might find the situation cause to rejoice, Jennifer Farinholt, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which created the whiskey unit in 1985, said the department still thinks it can stay on top of moonshiners. The department, she said, is charging all of its agents statewide with pursuing their own investigations.
"This has given us the opportunity to redesign our operational strategies and, in effect, create a force-multiplying strategy which charges all agents with conducting illegal whiskey manufacturing investigations," Farinholt said.
Much of the whiskey unit's work involved sneaking into the woods of the state's back country, staking out still sites and conducting around-the-clock surveillance in hopes that a still's operator would show up.
Asked how the area's black-market hooch can be policed without the expertise of a fully staffed whiskey unit, Don Harris, 63, the unit's remaining member, said: "That's a good question. You'll have to pose that to Richmond."
Farinholt said the department wouldn't discuss "deployment issues." But another ABC spokeswoman, Kathleen Shaw, reiterated that the agency believes tasking all agents to include illegal whiskey investigations among their responsibilities "is also an effective way to attack the problem." She acknowledged, though, that a budget crunch, not enforcement strategy, is driving the new approach.
The ABC's whiskey unit has worked across the state but has traditionally concentrated on Franklin, Henry, Floyd, Patrick and Pittsylvania counties. While the work of ABC agents generally involves licensing businesses to sell alcohol and keeping it out of the hands of minors, the whiskey unit agents were experts in the ways of white lightning.
They traveled the back roads and bought their lunches at country stores, recruiting informants, mapping bootleggers' distribution networks and learning to spot the telltale signs of increased liquor production in particular areas.
But a series of retirements from the whiskey unit in the past two years shrank the ABC agency's moonshining expertise. Agent Allan Arrington resigned and is now working in Afghanistan, according to his former colleagues. Agent Jay Calhoun retired to take up farming, and agent Randall Toney simply retired.
Toney predicted moonshining operations will once again blossom without a full-time whiskey unit: "There's too much money for them to quit," he said of the moonshiners.
Virginia moonshine sells for about $20 a gallon, and an 800-gallon black pot still averages $2,000 in profits per week, according to the National Liquor Law Enforcement Association, based in Maryland.
One of the whiskey unit's biggest victories came at the beginning of this decade, when its work helped federal prosecutors in Roanoke convict more than two dozen people of taking part in the untaxed liquor trade. The raid that led to the convictions, dubbed Operation Lightning Strike, crushed a moonshine operation that had produced 1.4 million gallons of liquor since 1992. It also shuttered a supply store in Rocky Mount that had supplied bootleggers with 12 million pounds of sugar.
Former Franklin County Sheriff W.Q. "Quint" Overton said the federal government's intervention in the area's moonshine business has effectively halted all major trafficking, making the need for a whiskey unit questionable. The past few years have been largely devoid of large moonshine busts.
"I think the whiskey business is something in the past," Overton said. "The drugs pretty much took over. The younger generation is into drugs — marijuana, cocaine, everything — they're not in the whiskey business."
Still, Chris Goodman, the ABC agent in charge of the Roanoke office, said he has seen a slight increase in moonshining in the past few months, possibly because of the recession. "We're starting to see and get more information about some stills," he said. "It appears there's an uptick, and we're trying to address it."