Editors note: The following is a true story, taken from A Breed Apart, by former ATF Special Agent Charles Weems.
J. R. didn't make enemies. He was quick to help anyone in the community around Dawsonville and could be counted on to contribute generously to every charitable cause. He wore nice clothes and an expensive fedora. He could have been the mayor or a legitimate businessman. He was intelligent, nice-looking and an excellent manager of men and details. The only problem was J. R. was the biggest moonshiner in the state, and one of the largest in the nation.
That summer (1961), my boss called me into his office.
"Charley, I'm going to give you a good one!" he said with a slight smile as he handed me a file titled "J. R. Turner." Every ATF agent in Georgia knew J. R. His operation had been investigated by most agents at one time or another. Occasionally a big distillery would be seized and maybe one or two still hands caught, but for the most part, J. R. directed his illegal operation quietly and efficiently and stayed out of prison.
The first task was to collect case reports connected to the operation, with trips to Detroit and New Orleans to gather material. I began surveillance of J. R. and his lieutenants, working with agents assigned to Dawson and Lumpkin Counties. Our first seizure occurred that fall, about 5 miles southwest of Dawsonville. The still hands were long gone by the time we arrived, but it had all the markings of a J. R. still.
We attempted to infiltrate the operation, but after two weeks, I realized that J. R. was not going to talk to anyone he didn't know. His organization was so tight no one could get in. I was discouraged.
In an effort to obtain information, a special agent suggested a wire tap. Although I had assisted while other officers tapped a phone, I would need an expert to handle this one. "Hank" and I arrived at the suspect's house about 1:00 a. m. that night and hid our car on a side road. By morning the line had been tapped. I would use it to listen to telephone conversations of the suspect. When I returned 3 days later to begin the task of listening, the tap had been removed. This was just one of a number of unusual things that occurred during the investigation.
Agents from Jasper and Cornelia participated by having informants make undercover contacts. These proved fruitless. In the Spring of 1962 our first big break came. I received a call from the area supervisor. "Charley, we've just seized a big one in Lumpkin County, north of Dahlonega. It has all the appearances of being a J. R. outfit. "
It was one of the largest stills I had ever seen, with a 20' (diameter) boiler and 54 fermenters holding 220 gallons apiece. There were 1,260 gallons of moonshine and 10,000 gallons of beer ready to be shipped along with 10 tons of sugar, an important ingredient in the process.
Since the chicken house used to cover the still was subject to destruction as well as the still, and transporting that much equipment and product would be nearly impossible, we decided to blow up the entire operation. First we had a local machinist cut the boiler with an acetylene torch. Then, carefully cutting 90 seconds of fuse, Agent Jim Stratigos and I prepared 24 sticks of dynamite for the operation. The plan was to drop one in every other barrel of mash.
Another agent lit the fuses with a propane torch and Stratigos yelled, "Fire in the hole!" The 90 seconds that we cut the fuses for seemed like a short time as he and I ran through the house dropping dynamite. As we left at the other end of the house we ran for cover. No sooner had I gotten behind a big oak tree than the explosives began going off. The roof lifted as several sticks of dynamite went off at the same time. Amber beer came pouring out of the cracks. I had been concerned about fire, but with that much beer flying in all directions there was no chance of that.
The destruction of the distillery was complete. The residence belonged to R. B. Bledsoe. We found him and he showed me a lease agreement signed in the name of Roy Reece, later identified as Wade White, a known employee of J. R.'s. This was certainly helpful.
About one o'clock an agent called from the house on the same property as the still.
"Somebody is up here loading furniture and stuff into a station wagon."
When I got to the house Attorney Rob Thomas was gathering up everything he could carry and hurriedly placing it in the back of the station wagon.
"Does this furniture belong to you?" I asked.
He replied, "It belongs to a client of mine."
As he continued loading the television, clothes and frozen food into the station wagon, Thomas looked longingly at the new GMC truck with 20,000 pounds of sugar on it and said, "That's where we really lost money!"
"I'm glad to hear you admit that you're in partnership with the moonshiners," I said sarcastically.
"I have to make money some way other than as an attorney," he replied brazenly.
I was shocked that an attorney would stoop so low as to serve as a "gofer" for moonshiners and then admit that he was a part of the illegal operation.
I was disgusted, too, especially since Thomas had worked as an Assistant U. S. Attorney after his graduation form law school, prosecuting moonshiners. I was associated with U. S. Attorneys who were some of the finest men I have ever known, but Thomas was not one of them.
Some of the prints we lifted from the chicken house were sent to the FBI lab in Washington D. C. All prints were identified as belonging to "Skeeter" Fields, one of the largest distillers in the Southeast. He got his name by being fast on his feet, but he was a likeable kind of guy when we caught him.
The still hands, the size and location of the distillery and the intervention of a high-priced lawyer all pointed the J. R., but we had only enough evidence to successfully prosecute Wade White(Roy Reece) and Skeeter Fields.
This was the first of many large scale J. R. operations that I investigated. Over the next several years I found that direct evidence against J. R. was hard to come by.
This is just the start of the story about Charley trying to capture the elusive J. R. Turner. It's many twists and turns are part of the book Agent Weems wrote detailing his chronicles as an ATF agent. Charley left the ATF after more than 20 years of service to his county.
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