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Former employees describe being berated by winery operator


By Andrew Wegley

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    LANCASTER COUNTY, Nebraska (Lincoln Journal Star) — The operator of WindCrest Winery who was arrested last week for allegedly threatening an employee and shooting a gun on the property had been making threats for weeks, former employees said.

Cynthia Koester, a 58-year-old leasing to own the winery on Branched Oak Road near Raymond, was arrested July 22 and later charged with making terroristic threats after telling an employee “play time is over” in a text message and immediately shooting a gun nearby, according to court records.

Lancaster County Sheriff Terry Wagner said deputies had been called to the property multiple times in prior days because of disputes between Koester and Travis Friend, the 43-year-old employee who received the ominous text message.

But dispatch records and Journal Star interviews with former employees indicate the disputes involving Koester date back further than a few weeks — and involve more than just Friend.

Deputies have responded to the winery at least 10 times in the past four months, including eight times in July.

“It was a reoccurring thing with her,” said Todd Waln, a former employee who helped manage the winery for 10 weeks before quitting in early July and leaving the state.

It was only about a month into the job when Waln, 46, said Koester first berated him, screaming at him over the phone regarding a personnel decision. Waln told the Journal Star that Koester called a few days later and apologized.

But later, Koester sent Friend, a new hire, to the winery to pick up three cases to sell, he said.

Within days, Waln said Koester called, yelling that he “might as well have stolen that wine” than giving it to Friend, who Koester had hired and sent to the winery. In a separate interview with the Journal Star, Friend said that Koester had made similar comments about Waln.

Waln said he fielded two more phone calls in which Koester vaguely threatened him before deciding to leave his job, and as he began to exit the property, he said Koester threatened to have him “taken out.”

As Waln headed toward the property’s residence, where he lived at the time, Koester continued to yell at him.

“I get in the house, and she keeps pounding on the doors and everything, telling me people are coming to kill me and shoot me and beat my a–,” Waln told the Journal Star.

That’s when Waln said he called to have deputies stand by as he packed his belongings and left. Dispatch records show deputies responded to a disturbance at the property on July 7, mentioning Waln as the reporting party. He did not pursue criminal action against Koester.

“When (Sgt. Michael Hipps) stopped by, he just asked what we wanted to happen,” Waln recalled. “I said, ‘Right now, I want to get out of here with my life.'”

Waln has filed a complaint with the state Labor Department over six weeks’ salary and more than $1,000 in tips that he said Koester failed to pay him.

Customers of the winery, too, have reported hearing yelling as they approached the business in recent weeks, including one that invokes similar phrasing as Waln reported.

One online reviewer described “an unending list of threats,” shouted by a woman who was out of sight. Another recalled a “very loud, rude and demeaning lady” who had shouted that “she had friends that would come take who she was yelling at out for free.”

Not long after Waln departed, sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to the winery with increasing frequency, including four times in the days and hours leading up to the shooting. Deputies responded to a call at the winery two hours before Koester allegedly fired the gun, according to dispatch records.

Friend, who told the Journal Star that Koester hasn’t paid him for any of the work he did, no longer works at WindCrest but says he’s stranded on the property and living in the residence with no money to gas up his truck and nowhere to go.

Friend said he was promised a $1,500-per-week salary. Instead, he encountered a boss who failed to fulfill promises, he said, and who later threatened him.

“It was the terrible from the get-go,” Friend said.

Only a few weeks into his job, deputies responded on July 22 after Friend called and told dispatchers he feared for his life after receiving the ominous text message and hearing the gunshot, according to a probable cause affidavit.

Deputies escorted Friend to safety and took Koester into custody. The sheriff’s office found a loaded .38-caliber revolver at the winery, according to the affidavit. One round had been discharged.

Koester told deputies that Friend had harassed and terrorized her. Friend, in turn, showed law enforcement a string of threatening text messages from Koester, according to the affidavit, including one that said “no one is coming to save” him.

A third former employee, Anthony Reese, said Koester threatened to have him “taken care of” and recalled her repeatedly yelling at Friend. Reese said he wasn’t fully compensated for his work at the winery, either, though he was paid for some of it.

Tim Eppler, Koester’s public defender, did not respond to requests for comment. On Tuesday, both the winery’s phone number and Koester’s personal number appeared to be disabled. By Wednesday, the phone number listed for WindCrest on the winery’s website had changed.

Koester was taken to the Lancaster County jail but paid $1,000 of a $10,000 percentage bond and was released last week. She is scheduled to appear in Lancaster County Court on Aug. 31.

It’s unclear if she’s still set to buy WindCrest Winery, which is listed on several real estate sites as “under contract.”

Dale Lilyhorn, the property’s owner, declined to comment on the pending sale and whether Koester was still set to purchase the 34-acre site.

Friend, though, is still on the property, where on Tuesday he said he found a dead bird on his front porch that had been shot in the head — the latest threat against him, he said.

“They can drop the charges,” he said. “I just wish she’d pay me so I can get the f— out of here.”

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