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Moonshine operation busted in McCurtain County

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Joe D. Daniels, special agent-in-charge of the ABLE Commission's McAlester District Office, shows evidence seized during the raid of a moonshine distillery. [PROVIDED]
Joe D. Daniels, special agent-in-charge of the ABLE Commission's McAlester District Office, shows evidence seized during the raid of a moonshine distillery. [PROVIDED]

EAGLETOWN — City slickers may be drooling over Oklahoma's fancy new liquor laws, but bootleggers and moonshine still have their fans in certain rural parts of the state.

Acting on a tip and a monthlong undercover operation, agents with the Oklahoma Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement (ABLE) Commission and local law enforcement officers swooped down on a rural McCurtain County barn Feb. 21 and came up with quite a haul, said Joe Daniels, special agent-in-charge of the ABLE Commission's McAlester District Office.

Two complete moonshine stills, moonshine mash, assorted paraphernalia and 108 containers of moonshine were among the items seized or destroyed, Daniels said.

The illicit whiskey had even been manufactured in a variety of proofs and flavors, ranging from cinnamon to "blueberry pizza topping," he chuckled.

Details of the raid became public this week after alleged moonshiner Gary L. Branson, 54, of Eagletown, turned himself in to authorities Monday and was charged with operating a whiskey still without a distiller's license. A warrant for his arrest had been issued April 17.

Daniels credits McCurtain County Sheriff's Deputy John Jones with coming up with a tip that moonshine was being manufactured in the area and sold to customers through Short's Beer To Go, a convenience store located in a rural area east of Eagletown.

Following up on the tip, Jones and another officer reportedly verified the information by making undercover moonshine purchases at the convenience store Jan. 3 and 5. They then called in ABLE agents to assist.

"While they worked the convenience store, we went to trying to figure out where this stuff was coming from," Daniels said.

Research turned up Branson's name as the likely cook, and ABLE agents flew a drone over his property to get a closer look, Daniels said.

Walking around the wooded area on foot, agents were able to detect the smell of moonshine being cooked, he said.

That provided enough evidence to get a search warrant.

Armed with the search warrant, a caravan of law enforcement officers in unmarked cars headed for the rural residence about dusk on the evening of Feb. 21, Daniels said.

"When we showed up to serve the warrant, the doors were open, the lights were on, everybody had fled the residence," Daniels said, theorizing that the moonshine cook likely had friends in the area who tipped him off that the caravan was coming.

"At the same time, we served the search warrant on the still, the sheriff's office and ABLE agents served a search warrant on the convenience store," Daniels said. That investigation is ongoing, he said.

Making moonshine is nothing new in McCurtain County, Daniels said, pointing to a 1983 article in The Oklahoman headlined, "McCurtain County Still Shines."

"They said that in '83. They're still shining in 2019," he laughed.

At one time, many people thought making moonshine was kind of a "lost art," Daniels said.

"I've been doing this for 28 years," Daniels said. " For years, I'd tell people we would average taking down one still a year. ... Then something happened."

That something was a Discovery Channel television show called "Moonshiners" which came out in 2011.

"When 'Moonshiners' hit the air, that next year we took down eight stills," Daniels said. "It just exploded. Now, I could work it every day, just because of that. The big ones like this, you don't find that often anymore, but it appears they're on the resurgence because people have more access through information on the internet and TV."

"It's still a felony," he cautioned, adding that conviction can lead to a fine and prison term.

While southeastern Oklahoma is known for its moonshine stills, Daniels has also seen them in Guymon and other places.

"They're everywhere," he said.

"There's this nostalgia, romance notion of what a moonshiner is," Daniels said, citing classic characters like Granny Clampett from "The Beverly Hillbillies" and Uncle Jesse from "The Dukes of Hazzard."

"That's not what it's like," he said. "It's dirty. It's nasty. It's unhealthy and they can make some stuff that's dangerous."

Related Photos
<strong>Suspected moonshiner Gary Branson. [Provided]</strong>

Suspected moonshiner Gary Branson. [Provided]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-1e2b351e1684c2285ac0caf23fa1ccae.jpg" alt="Photo - Suspected moonshiner Gary Branson. [Provided] " title=" Suspected moonshiner Gary Branson. [Provided] "><figcaption> Suspected moonshiner Gary Branson. [Provided] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-a6d95dbaf4eac07cab63da567e17646c.jpg" alt="Photo - Joe D. Daniels, special agent-in-charge of the ABLE Commission's McAlester District Office, shows evidence seized during the raid of a moonshine distillery. [PROVIDED] " title=" Joe D. Daniels, special agent-in-charge of the ABLE Commission's McAlester District Office, shows evidence seized during the raid of a moonshine distillery. [PROVIDED] "><figcaption> Joe D. Daniels, special agent-in-charge of the ABLE Commission's McAlester District Office, shows evidence seized during the raid of a moonshine distillery. [PROVIDED] </figcaption></figure>
Randy Ellis

For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two... Read more ›

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