By Gene Johnson Associated Press
SEATTLE — Detectives have recovered more than 2,500 bottles of fancy wine stolen from a Seattle shop, police said Wednesday, and they’re examining whether the Thanksgiving heist might be related to a similar break-in at a San Francisco wine seller earlier this year.
The discovery came as detectives searched a storage facility Tuesday less than a mile from Esquin Wine Merchants, a wine shop in south Seattle that also houses 450 privately rented wine storage lockers. The value of the 200 cases was estimated at about $648,000, and police said the wine appeared to have been kept in a climate-controlled area so that it wouldn’t spoil.
Officers spent Wednesday sorting through the bottles — very carefully — to take inventory and match them to their owner.
“While we are still doing an inventory to make sure it’s all there, the volume recovered makes us eager with anticipation and we can’t wait to share the good news with our customers,” shop owner Chuck LeFever said in a statement relayed by Seattle police.
Two men were arrested and charged with burglary, theft and arson in the case. They’re being held on $500,000 bail and are due to face arraignment next week.
According to charging papers filed in King County Superior Court, the suspects broke into the building after business hours on Nov. 27 to disable alarms and motion-detectors and to spray-paint over security cameras. They returned late on Thanksgiving, entering through a vacant, adjacent warehouse and cutting holes in the sheetrock to gain access to the wine lockers, Detective Don Jones wrote in court documents.
As they left the next morning, prosecutors say, they punctured gas lines at the vacant space and ignited them — intending to trigger an explosion and cover their tracks. A building manager called 911 after smelling the fumes, and no explosion resulted. But if one had, it could have killed dozens of people, police said. There were customers in the wine shop by then, and light rail passenger trains pass close by the building.
One of the suspects, a Seattle plumber named Samuel Arby Harris, could be identified briefly on one of the cameras that was only partially painted, and shop employees recognized him in the footage as someone who had recently rented a wine locker, police said. A phone number for Harris’ plumbing business was not accepting calls Wednesday, and his attorney did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
A SWAT team arrested Harris, 34, at his home Dec. 2. They found him rifling around his basement carrying a black bag, Jones wrote, and inside it was a list of wines, printouts of wine descriptions and values, and correspondence with a wine dealer named Neal Dessouky, owner of San Francisco Wine Consulting.
When Dessouky was interviewed by Seattle police, he said that on Nov. 30, Harris had offered to sell him a large amount of wine for $125,000 — about 10 percent of what Dessouky estimated it to be worth, based on a list of some of the wines included, the detective reported. Dessouky said he became suspicious that the wine might be stolen and declined to buy it.
But Dessouky also told police that last spring, he met with Harris and another man in San Francisco and bought a “substantial” amount of wine from him for $100,000. The sale occurred soon after a wine heist in San Francisco, the detective wrote — an apparent reference to the theft of 80 bottles at a high-end merchant called Fine Wines International.
In that case, someone cut a hole in a rolling metal door and made off with the wine, valued at more than $100,000, news reports at the time indicated.
“We’re going to talk to the detectives and see if there are any similarities or if the cases are possibly related,” San Francisco Police spokesman Albie Esparza said Wednesday.
Dessouky told The Associated Press: “I’m not able to comment on any of this at this point, unfortunately. I’ve been advised not to speak.”
The other defendant, Luke Thesing, 35, has previously worked for Harris, charging papers said. He was also seen on surveillance footage with Harris at the wine shop, and on surveillance footage buying materials used in the burglary, Jones wrote. It wasn’t immediately clear if he had a lawyer.
Among the items discovered in searches of Harris’ home and car was a journal containing a to-do list — including tasks such as disabling Esquin’s alarms, destroying evidence, changing his appearance and obtaining an international driver’s license, documents said. Detectives said they also found two computer printouts: one titled “Is it Accidental Fire or Arson?” and the other “How to Commit the Perfect Crime.”
Johnson can be reached at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle