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Rocky Mount, Virginia 24151
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Morris learns from retired officers
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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

By MORRIS STEPHENSON -

Last week, I had the privilege of sitting down for more than three hours to talk with two law enforcement retirees who live in Amherst and are good friends.

The men have two things in common. Both retired from Virginia's law enforcement system, and both are familiar with the subject of illegal whiskey. John Wright, 71, spent almost his entire career with the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. He started as an agent and served as director for the last 17 years of his career.

Bobby Bondurant, 75, a native of Snow Creek, also knows a little something about the illegal whiskey from his younger years. He is a son of the late Jack Bondurant, an infamous moonshiner.

The late Jack Bondurant was the main character in a fictional book and movie based on the moonshine exploits of Bondurant and two of his brothers, Howard and Forrest.

I had not met Bobby until a month or so ago during a moonshine program presented by Doug Cooper, director of the Bedford County museum. I've known John since his days with the ABC. One thing for sure, I learned more interesting information about the two men than I have space for in this column.

So I will first highlight some of the facts I learned from Bobby. His father's full name was Andrew Jackson Bondurant, and his grandfather was Granville Thomas Bondurant, who served on the Franklin County Board of Supervisors many years ago.

His father was 90 when he died in 2000. Bobby was the youngest of the Bondurant clan with Howard being the oldest. Forrest was born "somewhere in between" Howard and Jack. It was Forrest, I learned, who had his throat cut as a young man in perhaps a moonshine-related incident.

Jack was 21 years old when he was shot by a Franklin County deputy after he and his brothers were stopped at a road block near Maggodee Creek, north of the Blackwater Filling Station. That location later became the office of the late George Cooper's Lumber Company.

The lone bullet that struck Jack entered the left side of his shoulder. It then crossed his back and exited the right side, according to Bobby. "It didn't keep him from working or doing anything. But I remember he couldn't lift his right arm high enough to shave," Bobby said.

Bobby Joe was born Oct. 17, 1937, and married the former Judy Edgen of Springfield, Tenn. The couple has two children, Robert of South Hill and Joseph Lee of Amherst.

Bobby said his earliest memories of his father were that he was a very private person, especially around the children. However, he does recall that when he was a boy, a number of people were always coming to the family's house. He said it was when the family lived in the Mountain Valley area near Leatherwood that he realized that "there was something going on." People would come up to the house, and his father would sell them whiskey. "I didn't know where he kept it, where it came from or any of that stuff," he said. "I just knew it was whiskey he was selling."

As Bobby grew a little older, he saw his father cutting wood in the barn apparently for making mash boxes that were 4 x 4-feet square and three feet tall. "I think he could make or build just about anything," Bobby added.

"I was just a youngster the first time I remember my father being caught. That day, he came walking out of the woods toward the house, telling my mother the agents had caught him. He told her that he had to clean up, change clothes and meet the officers at the courthouse," Bobby said.

He told the judge when he went to court that day it would be his last time (appearing in court on a liquor charge).

Bobby also recalled his father served time on three occasions, twice in a federal prison. "He served time in Millpoint, W.Va. That time he got a year and served nine months. Jack also served time in Chillicothe, Ohio, and Petersburg. As an interesting point, Bobby said that his father served time in the state prison with one of the Allen brothers involved in the infamous Hillsville courthouse shooting from years ago.

After his father was released from Millpoint, he built and opened a store in the Figsboro community. Later, Jack retired and returned to the Snow Creek community after buying a farm. His father also bought some land, cut it up into lots and built houses. Oddly, Jack died the same year Bobby retired as a game warden.

Bobby worked at DuPont in Martinsville, along with another Snow Creek native Karl Martin. "Karl and I both worked at DuPont and left to become game wardens." They began their new duties on the same day in 1972, he noted. Bobby retired in 2000, while Martin is still accumulating years of service in Franklin County.

Following his retirement, Bobby served three two-year terms on Amherst Town Council. "When I was running for council, this man came up to me and said, 'Bobby, you don't have many friends and you're going to have even less now'," he said, followed by a chuckle. "I found out real quick how many friends I had," he added with a laugh.

Bobby also is enjoying his favorite part of the year. NASCAR racing recently opened its 2013 racing schedule. "I love racing," he said. "In fact," he said with pride, "I saw the first race Clay (Earles) had at Martinsville Speedway."

John Moore Wright, a native of Nelson County, has spent most of his life in Amherst, where he was raised from the time he was 10 years old.

The 1963 graduate of Virginia Tech worked at a bank for a short time before deciding he wanted to enter the field of law enforcement. He applied for several jobs but there were no vacancies. Then he heard about an opening with the ABC department in Newport News.

With assistance from a number of letters written on his behalf, Wright landed the only law enforcement vacancy in the state. After graduating from the department's training school, he was stationed in Newport News. It was an assignment that lasted for 18 months.

Wright remembers he was one of three ABC agents, along with two federal ATF officers, assigned to the area. "At the time, I was 22 and the youngest of them all," he said.

There was quite a bit of moonshine activity on the Isle of Wright and James City, according to Wright. "Those areas were full of stills, but most of them were small and the liquor being produced was filthy. Also, most of it was being transported to the Newport News and Norfolk areas. A lot of sailors were in those areas."

In 1967, he was transferred to the Lynchburg office, where there was just one state agent working with two federal agents and a supervisor in the same building. The state office covered Lynchburg, Amherst, Bedford, Nelson, Campbell and Appomattox counties.

"Most of the moonshine was in the Lynchburg area, along with gambling and prostitution. The city formed a vice squad, and I assisted them in cleaning up the city. I did my regular job during the day that ended about 4 p.m. Then I would go to work with the vice squad, he said.

"There was a lot going on along 5th street, and 4th street had a number of houses of prostitution. In the city, things were wide open and we were doing a lot to break it up, Wright added.

He pointed out there was only a small amount of illegal whiskey activity going on in Amherst, Nelson and Bedford counties "However, a lot of brandy was being made in the Piney River section."

Wright worked out of the Lynchburg office until 1976 when he was promoted to assistant director of law enforcement. When he arrived in Richmond, he worked under then director Stanley Gaulding. When Gaulding retired three years later in 1979, Wright took over the state's top position.

At that time, investigators and law enforcement were two separate divisions. In 1982, the department merged the two divisions. "That didn't make a lot of people happy on either side. There were guys who wanted to keep doing the licensing and didn't want to carry guns. And there were agents who didn't do the paper work the investigators were doing," Wright explained. "At the time of the merger there were 47 agents and 70 inspectors, as they were called," he added.

One of the major moves taken by Wright as director was establishing what he called the Illegal Whiskey Task Force. Members of the task force went into action in 1986. The task force was to concentrate on the counties of Franklin, Pittsylvania, Henry and part of Floyd.

The original group consisted of Sam Simmons, Butch Wright, Jimmy Rorrer, Jimmy Beheler, Randall Toney and Bev Whitmer from Franklin County. The task force was involved in a major round-up of those connected to moonshine activities in Franklin County. The majority of the violators were from Franklin County, he noted.

Wright said he was pleased with the impact the task force made on reducing the moonshine activities, especially in Franklin County. Over the years, agents retired and their work brought about the decline of moonshining. Eventually, the task force became faded into history.

Operation Lightning Strike in 1999, a federal ATF-led undercover operation in Franklin County, brought the business of manufacturing illegal whiskey to its knees, in Wright's opinion. "It really hurt them (the people involved) when they started seizing bank accounts and property."

Today, Bondurant and Wright don't live too far apart in the Town of Amherst. They spend a lot of time together. Their friendship developed when Bondurant was assigned to work Amherst County as a game warden.

From the short period of time I spent with the men, it was easy to see that their days of working together apparently created a strong bond between the pair.

Getting It Right -- Boy did I make a major mistake in last week's column when it came to the old service station. And at least a zillion people called to let me know about it, which I do appreciate.

One caller, who I agreed not to mention by name in the column, was the first to says the photo in the paper was the old Jot 'em Down Store, owned by the late Halifax "Fax" Pugh and his late wife, Ellen.

I was told the building next to the station on Route 122 in the curve was used for oil changes and minor mechanical work by Halifax "Fax" Pugh. The couple also lived in the adjoining house. I also learned the station sold ESSO gas from its two pumps.

Now, the old frame Blackwater Service Filling Station was, as I was first told, located near the former Cooper Lumber facility on Grassy Hill Road.

I also learned a lot of information, such as the old Blackwater filling station was operated by the late Forrest Bondurant, not his brother Howard, who is deceased, of course

For the record, I was informed by two callers that many members of the Bondurant clan are a little "sick and tired" of reading about the family. I can understand the Bondurants' point of view.

However, I can honestly say I appreciated all the callers and their comments. Everyone makes mistakes and I truly make my share of them as much stuff as I write.

The rivers are running higher this year than any spring I can remember in at least five years.

The heavy rains during the first two months saturated the ground and brought up the river levels. The regular rain falls between the big ones have kept up the water levels.

So that means the Blackwater and Pigg rivers should be in good shape for the upcoming Pigg River Ramble weekend in May. And plans are being made now for the events.

 
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