Editor's Note: This article was updated on Tuesday, July 13 at 1:35 p.m. to reflect that Sean Searcy was not interviewed by Netflix for the upcoming "Heist" documentary series.
With the premiere of a six-part documentary series featuring the most covered criminal case in Franklin County history just days away, the subjects are ready.
The State Journal caught up with Toby Curtsinger, a former processor at Buffalo Trace for 26 years who was convicted for his role in thefts of a large amount of top-shelf bourbon; Pat Melton, the former Franklin County Sheriff who led efforts to arrest Curtsinger and others involved; and Brad Bowman, a former State Journal investigative reporter who covered the case that garnered media attention from across the world, dubbed “Pappygate.”
Netflix, one of the world’s largest online content distributors, is premiering the documentary on Wednesday as part of a six-episode series called “Heist.” Two other high-profile theft cases from Miami and Las Vegas will also be featured.
Melton described Pappygate as “the case of a lifetime.”
“It was never anything personal, in any way, shape, or form,” Melton said. “It was strictly doing the job that we're supposed to do, and that was to take care of our community.”
Curtsinger called it traumatic for him and his family, while also admitting some of his misdeeds.
“I can laugh about it now, but about three years ago it’d just make me cry,” Curtsinger said. “I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.”
Curtsinger was originally sentenced in 2018 to 15 years in prison for his role in thefts from Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey distilleries; shortly after, he was granted shock probation.
Both Curtsinger and Melton said that they got their point across to the filmmakers at Netflix. Bowman told The State Journal that he trusted the producers involved with their presentation of the case.
“I'm sure they got it right,” Bowman said. “My sense was that they were fair to everybody. This wasn't a gotcha film, like, ‘Oh, this guy was good or bad,’ or trying to prove a point. It was letting everybody on each side of the story tell their story.
“It's going to be accurate, it's going to be balanced and it should actually be a lot of fun.”
The series is six 40-minute episodes in all, and the Pappygate story is told alongside that of a 21-year-old woman taking $3 million in Vegas casino cash and a man stealing a "fortune" from a Miami airport.
It will use a series of “dynamic reenactments” of certain scenes within the story to augment interviews with several subjects involved in the case. A Netflix spokesperson provided a brief list of interviewees to The State Journal, which she noted was not comprehensive. The list included Curtsinger’s family, Franklin County Sheriff's Deputy Jeff Farmer, former Frankfort Police Chief Jeff Abrams and Dusty Adkins.
Adkins was indicted in connection to Curtsinger. Farmer, a deputy whose past conduct and attendance at the infamous Jan. 6 rally at the White House has made headlines this year, was a key investigator on the Pappygate case.
Director Nick Frew called the story “very, very complicated,” adding that the final product has something of a screwball tone due to the nature of the story.
“We all worked together and said, let's make this a roller coaster ride,” Frew said. “Let's make every beat of it live and sing and match the other stories. It was a fun challenge. We leaned into a sort of Coen Brothers, slightly absurd vibe, creating montages and finding music cues that embodied the moments. It was really fun taking a story that needed a lot of love and giving it the love that it deserved.”
He realized, though, that the material needed to be sensitive to the lives affected by it.
“These stories are so nuanced, and these people have all paid the price,” Frew said. “We've really tried to ensure that those moments of vulnerability, weakness, humanity, and imperfection are what make these people real by the time we get into the more razzle-dazzle aspects. Our goal was to put viewers on the same roller coaster the subjects were on: ‘Let's give them the biggest highs, and the biggest lows.’”
Melton, who now works at the Georgetown Police Department, said that his role in the documentary was largely to relay how the investigation into Curtsinger and others’ behavior unfolded. He contributed to it via interview, he said, to highlight the work of those at the sheriff’s office when he was there.
“I wanted to do the documentary to make sure that the good work of the men and women in the Franklin County Sheriff's Office came to light and shine because they did a great job considering everything that we had to deal with in the case,” Melton said.
One aspect of the case that Melton wanted to address was the idea that it was a “publicity stunt” for himself and his office. He said that characterization was false.
“It was a tough case to work in part because Buffalo Trace wanted no publicity on it,” Melton said. “My thought process was that we make it as hot as we can. How do you make it hot? You put it out there.”
Bowman, who wasn’t initially covering crime when he started reporting on the case, said that he was taken aback by the media presence at Melton’s initial April 2015 press conference.
“When I walked into that press conference, there was the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and there was BBC — literally BBC.”
Bowman described his experience as a reporter being surprised at how the case grew from a “straightforward property theft” to much more.
“This is well over a commercial value of a million dollars, and that it's probably several million in all honesty,” Bowman said. “It went from one thing to the next like, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me.’... You find out this involves law enforcement officers, and it just keeps going. And it kept going.”
Bowman added that he had learned that sampling was a somewhat common practice among distillery workers.
Curtsinger, for his part, expressed an equal measure of hope that people will begin to ask more questions about the case and bitterness about the way things shook out.
“Overall, it is what it is,” Curtsinger said. “It kind of takes a lot of the human stuff from the story and puts it out there, but there's so much more,” Curtsinger said. “That's what I hope people get.”
He also downplayed the severity of his crimes, noting that he only received shock probation for the thefts, and complained about press painting him as a “bad” person.
“People wanted alcohol and you give it to them,” Curtsinger said. “How’s that bad? I’m told that now they’re allowing employees to purchase bottles before they go out. Somebody told me ‘they’re out buying bottles and re-selling them for what they convicted you for.’”
Neither Bowman or Melton thought that the case would be as notorious as it ended up, but both looked back on it fondly.
“We did a good job,” Melton said, lauding the teamwork of Larry Cleveland and Zach Becker at the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office. “And I never thought I’d have to do daily press briefings because of bourbon. I don’t even drink bourbon, so I didn’t know how big Pappy Van Winkle was.”
Bowman, whose consistent coverage helped define the case’s public narrative, said he never would have guessed that a press conference he went to would end up being “his life” for almost two years.
“You always know as a journalist when there's something that you can't put your finger on, but you know that something's not right,” Bowman said. “And then you find out that there's more. I probably only scratched the surface of what all went on there.”