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South Dakota man charged with theft of $400,000 in grain

MOUNT VERNON — A Mount Vernon man has been arrested for allegedly stealing $400,000 worth of grain by claiming it as his own and selling it.

Merle Northrup, 46, was charged with grand theft on July 20 for selling corn and soybeans to Poet and CHS under his own name for about five years, Davison County Deputy Steve Harr said Tuesday.

Northrup hauled grain and completed farm work for David Estabrook and his son, Scott Estabrook, who live and farm about 13 miles north of Mount Vernon in rural Davison County, Scott Estabrook said.

As Northrup transported grain from the bins to the grain elevators, he allegedly sold some of the loads under his own name and kept the proceeds, thought to be "$400,000 and change," Harr said.

According to Scott Estabrook, Northrup started taking small amounts, but he had "ramped up" his operation in recent years.

After one delivery, Estabrook received a call from the Poet biorefinery plant in Loomis, northwest of Mitchell, asking what he wanted done with his and Northrup's loads of grain. Northrup allegedly sold two loads in Estabrook's name and two loads in his own that day.

"It would have been soon we would have noticed the corn wasn't in the bin," Estabrook said. "He was our friend, and we trusted him, and in retrospect, we allowed him too much responsibility and trust."

At first, the missing grain was within the Estabrooks' margin of error, Estabrook said, and their operations were largely unaffected. Now that more has gone missing, Estabrook thinks he'll still be farming, but it may be more difficult next year.

"I thought I had grain in the bin, and that's money that's supposed to pay for my feed and fertilizer next year," Estabrook said. "We're going at it day by day, but I don't know what we're going to do next year."

But what Estabrook worries about the most is his 12-year-old son with autism, Isaac. While Estabrook expects to be able to provide for the immediate needs of his family, he's worried about taking care of his son in the long run.

"A lot of the work that I do, I'm constantly thinking about being able to provide for him even after I'm gone. That's what I've spent the most time thinking about ever since this has happened," Estabrook said. "It's set me back 10 years, and I don't know how well I'm going to be able to bounce back."

The alleged theft was reported to the Davison County Sheriff's Office on July 18, and authorities are still working to determine how much grain was taken from each of David and Scott's farms.

Northrup was charged with grand theft valued between $100,000 and $500,000, a class 3 felony, punishable upon conviction by up to 15 years in prison and a $30,000 fine.

Northrup is scheduled to make his initial appearance in court in two weeks, but Estabrook doesn't expect to get much back, at least not until a potentially lengthy court process is complete.

"That can take such a long time, I'm not really counting that into my plans as far as what I can do to stay in business," Estabrook said. "We'll just keep putting one foot in front of the other and try to keep going, I guess."

As far as transporting grain in the future, Estabrook is considering hiring a commercial service, although he may lean on his mother and father to help ease the burden.

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