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Reality show makes hooch while the moon shines

Don’t look for Sean Penn to do any time for his encounter with El Chapo.
Don’t look for Sean Penn to do any time for his encounter with El Chapo. Abaca Press/Tribune News Service

Q: I’ve been watching “Moonshiners” and “Drugs Inc.” for several years, and something has always bothered me. They have a camera crew follow these people around, and they say what they’re doing is illegal. So why aren’t they arrested? Or is it all fake?

Jerry, of Belleville

A: For one possible answer, you probably should look at the firestorm that erupted last weekend when it was revealed that actor Sean Penn sneaked into Mexico to interview drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán for a Rolling Stone magazine story.

I’d say most law-abiding citizens were understandably outraged. They probably thought, “How could this sleazy actor in good conscience agree to meet the world’s most-wanted fugitive, using a circuitous route to elude authorities and flying in a plane that reportedly could scramble radar? Here we have a monster bragging about being the world’s leading drug pusher, and Penn is more interested in fame than justice for the thousands upon thousands of deaths Guzmán’s drug cartel has caused. Off with his head — or throw him in jail, at least, for helping a criminal remain at large.”

But from Penn’s arguably sordid escapade, we learn a couple of things that I think may be applicable to your question. First, experts generally agree that Penn cannot be arrested for what he did.

“He certainly did not do anything that will make him vulnerable to legal action,” Rikki Klieman, a legal analyst for CBS, said on “CBS This Morning.”

“We may not like the ethics of it, but the truth is any reporter, any journalist, would have wanted this interview, and as long as you do not harbor or aid a fugitive — you don’t give him money, you don’t do something that continues his lack of apprehension — you can go talk to whoever you want. It’s a whole new look at when we say, ‘See something, say something.’ He has no duty to report it.”

According to CBS News, authorities were suspicious of Penn and even snapped photos of him at one of the airports he flew into. Nevertheless, Penn made it to a jungle clearing on a Mexican mountain, where more than 100 cartel troops kept watch as Guzmán, Penn and Mexican actress Kate del Castillo enjoyed dinner. By the time Mexican troops figured out the location days later, Guzmán had made a narrow escape. Afterward, he continued the interview by BlackBerry Messenger and even sent a video, according to a New York Times report.

Now, change the names and places, and you may begin to see how “Moonshiners” and “Drugs Inc.” could continue to allegedly show criminal behavior season after season with no legal repercussions.

First, as in the Penn-Guzmán case, it’s apparently not a crime to film or broadcast the shows, and the show’s staff is under no obligation to report the misdeeds to authorities.

Second, by the time the shows are aired on TV, the criminal acts are long over. In the case of “Moonshiners,” for example, any stills could be disassembled and/or moved if they thought the G-men could figure out where they were in the first place.

Finally, you obviously think what you’re watching is worthy of prosecution, but law enforcement likely would need hard evidence (e.g., actual hooch or drugs changing hands), not just what is purportedly being shown on TV, for a conviction. Because the alleged crimes took place weeks or months before, there seems little chance of that.

That’s why Tim Smith, one of the stars of “Moonshiners,” can enjoy the limelight.

“I guess you can call me the star because the show is centered around moonshiners,” he once told Tom Fischer, of “Yeah, I think there are those who are going to be rooting for the moonshiner to get away. But, then again, on the other side of the fence they may be rooting for Jesse (Tate, of Virginia’s Alcoholic Beverage Control) to go get ’em. That’s what I’m talking about. I need some good guys on my side. Majority wins, right?”

Smith, a mechanic by trade and a member of his town’s volunteer fire department, says he has been involved in moonshining almost since he was out of diapers.

“I was about five years old when my dad first got raided, and I was running around trying to hide some moonshine before the agents came into the room where we had the moonshine stored,” he recalled. “During that whole time I started to learn the do’s and don’ts and what’s going on about this world of moonshine.”

He says it’s the mystique that keeps it a thriving enterprise.

“It’s that mystery thing about moonshining. It could be John Doe’s moonshine, but just that myth of being able to get their hands on something — that kind of makes it more valuable just because it’s illegal. It’s not really a cheap alcohol. I’ve seen it go as high as $50 a gallon.”

So when the Discovery Channel approached him just as his father was dying, Smith thought the time was right for a program to show off this usually secretive art usually hidden away in the backwoods and hollers of Appalachia. His instincts proved correct. When the show debuted Dec. 6, 2011, nearly 3 million viewers tuned in, and the show has held on to most of them ever since.

He says he’s trying to preserve a piece of Americana, which is why he sounds proud that his son, J.T., has been part of the program

“If you know something you want to pass on to your kids, you need to do it, because life is very short and you don’t know when the end may come. So we’re at the key part of our generation now where we have to jump on board. And I really think that’s why moonshining is so hot right now. It’s still happening, and I think that’s where people are so fascinated and they’re drawn to the show.”

But how much is real? You may have noticed I earlier said “alleged” crimes because lawmen say that on “Moonshiners” that’s all they are. When viewers began asking the same questions you are, the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control claimed the show is merely a dramatization and no illegal liquor is being distributed.

“If illegal activity was actually taking place, the Virginia ABC Bureau of Law Enforcement would have taken action,” said spokeswoman Kathleen Shaw, who acknowledges that the state does lose millions in revenue to moonshiners.

So perhaps it’s best simply sit back, pour yourself a bit of bubbly and enjoy the continued brewhaha going on around Pittsylvania County.

Today’s trivia

What did Hymen Lipman do to make life easier for students in 1858?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: Born in 1923, Peter II Karadordevic became the last king of Yugoslavia at age 11 when his father, King Alexander I, was assassinated while visiting France. But in 1945, he moved to the United States after being deposed by Yugoslavia’s Communist Constituent Assembly. When he died in 1970 after a failed liver transplant, he was buried at St. Sava Monastery Church in Libertyville, Ill., thus becoming the only European monarch ever to be buried on American soil. However, his rest here was anything but eternal. On Jan. 22, 2013, his remains were returned to Belgrade, Serbia, where they lay in state before being reburied May 26, 2013 in the Royal Family Mausoleum at Polenac.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer