Suicide widow angry with rumors; says former friend, board member had no clue about stealing
BATTLE LAKE, Minn.—Kathy Evavold has heard the rumors and they make her angry and hurt.
Kathy, 59, is the widow of Leland "Lee" Evavold, a Battle Lake, Minn., a 64-year-old farmer and former board member of the former Ashby Farmers Elevator Cooperative. The couple farmed 10 miles north of Ashby.
Lee killed himself July 9, 2018, after what she describes as a private battle with depression.
Kathy said her sister-in-law recently overheard someone at a church function speculating that there might be some connection between Lee's suicide and the allegations of embezzlement by his friend and former co-op general manager Jerome "Jerry" Hennessey.
Lee surely didn't know about Jerry's financial misdeed, she said.
"If Lee had any idea at all (about embezzlement) he would have turned him (in) himself. He told me everything," she says.
From the outside
From the outside, Lee Evavold, was the picture of rural accomplishment.
He grew up in rural Battle Lake and played sports at Battle Lake High School where he graduated in 1972. He attended the University of Minnesota at Crookston and graduated in agricultural economics at North Dakota State University in 1978.
His 1,400-acre farm produced hay, corn and beans, and cattle. The couple raised three children.
He was well thought of, and a leader. He was elected to the local soil and water conservation board, the Grue Lutheran Church council for many years. He was on the Ashby Equity Association board, a co-operative that provides fertilizer, ag chemicals, farm seeds, fuels and propane to customers. He was a charter member of a local Lions club and served as president a couple years.
For several years, he was on the board of the Ashby Farmers Elevator Cooperative, ending in about 2012, Kathy thinks. In 2014, the Evavolds were featured by the Alexandria Echo-Press. They were recipients of soybean planting help that year from Farm Rescue after a cow kicked Lee and put him in the hospital for several days.
Kathy describes Lee as quiet—not a partier, but sociable. The couple attended Ashby Farmers Elevator Co-op Christmas parties. Sometimes they were held at the Hennessey's property in rural Dalton.
But privately, Lee was hurting. He'd lost some important people in his life. His father, Karold Evavold, died in April 1995 at age 69. His older brother, Sherwin Evavold, died in June 2001 at 50. A second-cousin, Morris "Morrie" Evavold, died of cancer in 2006 at age 68. Morrie was helping every day and after that Lee was trying to do everything himself. Lee and Kathy's son, Jed, now 22, left for the Marines at age 19. Kathy helped when she wasn't at the beauty shop she co-owns in Battle Lake.
"It got to be overwhelming and he got more isolated," she recalls.
'We knew each other'
Coincidentally, Kathy (Rasmussen) Evavold, 59, had known of the Hennessey couple since high school. While in the ninth grade, Kathy had moved to Barnesville, Minn., and lived with an aunt and uncle who farmed. After graduating in 1977, she met Lee at Stub's Dining and Saloon in Battle Lake.
Meanwhile, Rebecca "Becky" (Bolgrean) Hennessey graduated from Barnesville in 1979. Jerry Hennessey graduated in 1980. "I knew who they were but wasn't friends with them," Kathy says.
After high school, Kathy went to Josef's School of Hair Design in Fargo. Lee graduated in agricultural economics student at North Dakota State University in 1978. They were married Oct. 20, 1979.
Lee began farming with Jerry Baier, an Illinois retiree with land in rural Battle Lake. When Baier passed away, the Evavolds moved into his farmstead. They had three children: Emily, born in 1983; Abbey, 1989; and Jed, 1996.
In 1988, Jerry and Becky Hennessey moved to Ashby.
Jerry would take the reins as the general manager of the cooperative elevator. Lee delivered grain to the elevator and the two became friends.
Lee and Jerry were opposites but got along well, Kathy remembers. Lee was easy-going and Jerry had "a very big personality." The wives similarly had different personalities. Becky Hennessey is the "sweetest, sweetest person, very giving," Kathy says. She is petite, blonde, and looks much like her high school graduation photo.
Lee and Jerry both enjoyed hunting, but on a different scale. Lee had done some duck and turkey hunting in his younger years but now mostly was a deer hunter. The couples socialized, a time or two going to the We Fest country music festival.
The Hennessey family lived on acreage in rural Dalton, Minn., but also bought an 80-acre parcel near the Evavolds where they would hunt turkeys. Sometimes the Hennesseys would stop at the farm when they were in the neighborhood. "We'd sit and have a few drinks," Kathy says,
'Good for you ...'
Several years ago, the Hennesseys built a large outbuilding, behind and to the north of the house in rural Dalton.
"In the back part of it Jerry had a room that had all of his guns and his hunting gear," Kathy says. "There was a big open area where they had a couch, chair, TV and a bar. They had an extra bedroom out there we could stay. If we had too much (alcohol) or didn't want to drive home, we'd stay there."
A couple of years ago, Jerry built an even bigger building, just to the south of the first one. "Lee had been over there and was telling me about this building they had just put up," Kathy says. "He told me it was just unbelievable how big it was, about all of the taxidermied animals that were in there. He thought it was pretty amazing."
The Evavolds toured the facility together. "To me, it was pretty outrageous to walk in there," Kathy says. "Everything (was) climate-controlled. It was totally finished on the inside, with yet another bedroom and bathroom. The facility had an even bigger bar than the first. We sat out by the bar and had a couple of drinks."
Lee and Kathy didn't question that their friend was paying for this all on his own. He was "in the futures market" and seemed to be very successful at it. Plus, she figured he was making over $100,000 working for the elevator, a figure the co-op declined to verify.
"I thought, 'Good for you if you can afford to do that,'" Kathy recalls.
'Whatever you need'
Lee shot himself in an upstairs bedroom of their home. Kathy had left the farm to be with a sister, who was living in a house on a farm the Evavolds had purchased. Their son, Jed, was home on leave and found his father. Lee was buried in Grue Lutheran Cemetery, where his father and cousins were buried.
The Henneseys attended the funeral home visitation and offered condolences and their help. Kathy didn't need to call on them.
Kathy was shocked by the allegations against the Hennesseys and refused to believe them until she heard proof at co-op member meetings. She figures her family lost tens of thousands in dividends and grain that was stored.
The Ashby co-op filed a civil lawsuit against Jerry Hennessey, who has left the region, and Becky, asking the Grant County District Court to name them responsible for $4.9 million in actual damages and $4.9 million in punitive damages—$9.8 million in all. The court will hold a hearing about whether the co-op can seize non-exempt property at 1 p.m., Nov. 6, at the Grant County Courthouse in Elbow Lake, Minn.
Kathy says she hasn't talked to either of the Hennesseys, but continues to think the best of Becky. "I know in my heart that she had no idea what was going on."