Two men accused of stealing more than $600,000 worth of wine from a Sodo wine-storage business during an elaborate Thanksgiving Day heist pleaded guilty Monday afternoon in King County Superior Court.
Samuel Harris, 35, pleaded guilty to attempted first-degree arson, second-degree burglary and 10 counts of first-degree theft. Co-defendant Luke Thesing, 36, pleaded guilty to second-degree burglary and nine counts of first-degree theft.
When the pair are sentenced July 25, King County prosecutors will recommend that Harris serve nine years in prison and Thesing a little over 5½ years.
As part of the plea deal, Harris pleaded guilty to a 10th count of first-degree theft after stealing more than $250,000 worth of wine from a Bellevue woman in May or June 2013, Deputy Prosecutor Peter Lewicki said.
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Prosecutors say the two men entered Esquin Wine & Spirits on Fourth Avenue in Seattle, disabled motion sensors and spray-painted surveillance cameras before making off with more than 200 cases of high-end wine, estimated at $648,000. Before they left, Harris cut gas lines and tampered with a pilot light, which fire officials said could have caused an explosion in the retail building.
The theft was discovered the next day when someone smelled gas in the building, police said.
The pair missed one surveillance camera, allowing Esquin employees to identify Harris, who previously had rented a wine-storage locker, according to charging documents.
Thesing was arrested after police found among Harris’ possessions a receipt from Lowe’s, which had surveillance video showing the two men together, according to the documents.
Detectives also found a journal in which Harris outlined “The Plan” to rip off Esquin, and charging papers say both Harris and Thesing planned to flee the country after selling the stolen wine.
Harris has been in jail since his arrest on Dec. 2, and Thesing since Dec. 7.
Defense attorney Matt Hartman said Monday of Thesing: “It’s with a heavy heart and great regret that he’s here,” adding his client wanted to take responsibility for his actions.
Harris’ defense attorney, Suzanne Pickering, did not make a statement on her client’s behalf during the plea hearing.
According to Seattle police, a substantial amount of the stolen wine was recovered on Dec. 11 in a temperature-controlled storage facility less than a mile from Esquin’s Sodo facility.
Nineteen individuals were named in court Monday as victims of the Esquin wine robbery.
“Each of them did lose a good amount” of wine, and Seattle police are still working on “marrying everybody back up with their wine,” said Senior Deputy Prosecutor Alexandra Voorhees.
She called the crime “the poorest execution of the greatest heist of wine.”
“If they hadn’t severed the gas line,” and employees hadn’t smelled natural gas, “I don’t think this would’ve been discovered” for some time, Voorhees said of the wine theft. “In their efforts to cover their tracks, they made it so we could solve this crime.”
A fire expert from the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) determined that if the natural gas had ignited, the explosion “would’ve cratered a block or two,” Voorhees said. But it would’ve likely taken weeks for enough gas to build up to that point, she said.
Harris was charged with attempted first-degree arson because investigators determined he had more information and knowledge about gas lines, and video footage temporally connected him to the time the pilot light was lit, Voorhees said.
Lewicki, who prosecuted the case with Voorhees, said during the Esquin investigation Seattle police connected Harris to the theft of $250,000 worth of wine in Bellevue about six months before the burglary in Sodo.
A woman hired Harris — whom she met through relatives — to build a wine-storage cellar at her Bellevue business, according to a supplemental case summary written by Voorhees. She discovered the theft after having her wine collection appraised, and Seattle police determined that Harris sold many of the woman’s wines to another man between June and November 2013 for $100,000, the case summary says.
Seattle Tims news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report, which also contains information from Times archives.
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org