Thieves Took Top-shelf Liquor in Department of Liquor Control Thefts

Thieves Took Top-shelf Liquor in Department of Liquor Control Thefts

DLC director says the department will review its security measures

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A Department of Liquor Control truck

Bethesda Beat file photo

A Montgomery County police officer responding to a reported break-in at the county’s Department of Liquor Control warehouse on the night of May 28 stopped a man walking away from a black Chevrolet Suburban parked at Lakelands Park Middle School in Gaithersburg.

The school is next to the warehouse, where trucks are loaded with alcohol products to distribute to restaurants, beer and wine stores and county-run liquor stores throughout Montgomery County.

Inside the SUV, the officer could see two cases of Hennessy V.S.O.P. Privilege cognac, valued at nearly $700; two cases of Johnnie Walker Blue Label whiskey, valued at more than $2,500; and a case of Roca Patron Silver tequila, valued at $300.

Police would later determine the man was Jean Auguste, 27, of Lanham and the vehicle belonged to his wife.

The officer took Auguste into custody and police said he later admitted to his role in a scheme that pilfered about $22,000 worth of alcohol from the DLC warehouse during eight nighttime thefts that occurred from mid-February through the night in late May he was discovered with the alcohol in the Suburban, according to court charging documents in the case.

Police said Thursday the thefts were an inside job that they began investigating after DLC officials reported in February that cases of alcohol were missing from DLC delivery trucks. Police believe Auguste worked with DLC employee Kelvin Snowden Jr., 31, of Bowie, who allegedly would steal the alcohol from trucks parked at the warehouse and then sell it to Auguste. Snowden worked as a delivery driver’s assistant at the department.

Kelvin Snowden, left, and Jean Auguste, Jr., right. Via Montgomery County police

Both men have been arrested. Snowden was released on a $3,500 bond Wednesday after being charged with theft and destruction of property. Auguste was charged with burglary and theft and released on $3,500 bond on May 29.

In the wake of the thefts, DLC Director Robert Dorfman said Thursday the department is conducting a thorough security assessment.

Police believe Snowden broke into DLC trucks on Feb. 14 and 24, April 23 and 30, and May 7, 16, 26 and 28—burglaries that police said were caught on warehouse surveillance cameras. According to the charging documents, a man would climb over an 8-foot tall security fence to gain entrance to the secured lot, grab a nearby hand truck, break into certain trucks, pull cases of alcohol from the them, load the cases onto the hand truck and then—in at least one instance—transport them to a corner of the lot and slip them under the fence.

Auguste told police that he paid Snowden $800 for the cases the officer found in the back of the Suburban and that he intended to resell them for double the price, according to the court documents.

According to police, Snowden would break into at least four trucks and as many as 11 during the thefts. Other items stolen included two cases of Don Julio tequila, a case of 26-year-old Glenfiddich Scotch valued at $890, cases of various types of wine, vodka and whiskey and, during one theft, the hand truck used to transport the alcohol.

The recurring incidents are the first significant thefts to be reported at the county department, which controls the wholesale distribution of alcohol and retail sale of liquor in the county, since 2014. At that time, a local TV station reported DLC drivers were trying to resell extra alcohol to shop owners and cameras caught one delivery truck driver who appeared to be drinking alcohol on the job.

DLC Director Robert Dorfman said Thursday the department reported the recent thefts to police as soon as officials discovered what was happening.

“We took the bull by the horns,” he said.

Although the incidents were caught on surveillance cameras, DLC officials couldn’t see the face of the person stealing the alcohol, which prevented them from quickly identifying a suspect, according to Dorfman. The trucks that were broken into had been loaded overnight and sealed with locking mechanisms routinely used in the trucking business before they were parked in the warehouse lot for deliveries that were scheduled to begin around 5:30 a.m., Dorfman said. He noted that the thefts took about 10 minutes on average. After it became clear the person seemed to know where the surveillance cameras were, the DLC added new equipment to aid in the investigation, Dorfman said.

“It took a period of time to gather evidence and determine who the perpetrators were,” Dorfman said. He added that there are no other active theft investigations at the department.

Dorfman said Snowden has been placed on leave without pay. County salary records show Snowden was paid about $40,000 in 2016. He is a member of the local county employee union UFCW Local 1994 MCGEO, which counts about 350 DLC employees as members.

News of the thefts led Del. Bill Frick (D-Bethesda) to renew his call for the county to get out of the alcohol business. He tried unsuccessfully in 2016 to pass a bill that would call for a referendum to try to change state law to get rid of the DLC’s alcohol monopoly in the county.

“It’s a broken system with no accountability and it needs to change,” Frick said Thursday.

The controversy over the DLC and calls to privatize the department resulted in county officials enacting an improvement plan at the department that led to the hiring of Dorfman late last year and numerous other changes at the department geared toward improving customer service and efficiency in the warehouse. The department transfers about $30 million in profits to the county each year. The funds are used to pay for bonds and county services.

Dorfman on Thursday pushed back against Frick’s statement. He said the DLC has a zero tolerance policy for theft and the department dealt with the incidents as aggressively as possible. He noted that Snowden was arrested around 6:30 a.m. Wednesday in full view of other DLC employees.

“Ninety-nine percent of the employees we have are really good people,” Dorfman said. “Then you have a bad apple … Is it positive we lost $22,000 worth of product? Of course not. But it’s not like two years ago where things were out of control.”

Gino Renne, the MCGEO union president, said the union will not provide Snowden with legal representation if the evidence is clear that he was engaged in theft.

“We do not condone theft or any egregious behavior,” Renne said Thursday.

He also said that after the theft and drinking incidents were reported in 2014 he met with DLC union employees to warn them that they were under renewed scrutiny and to urge them to be responsible.

“It’s challenging enough for public employees these days,” Renne said. “Regrettably public employees are under enormous scrutiny and when they step outside the law and engage in criminal or improper behavior, then it just makes it all the more difficult for them.”

He defended the other union employees and said the thefts appear to be an isolated situation.

“We can’t allow one bad apple to spoil the whole barrel,” Renne said. “The majority of the men and women that work at that department are honest, hardworking individuals.”

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