ASHBY, Minn. — Former grain co-op manager Jerome Robert Hennessey has filed a motion for “compassionate release” from federal prison because of his vulnerability to COVID-19.
Hennessey, formerly of Dalton, Minn., has served less than 10% of his sentence for stealing $5 million from the Ashby (Minn.) Farmers Co-operative Elevator Co.
Adan Perez, a U.S. Attorney’s office victim witness specialist in Minneapolis, on May 31 received notification of the motion. Perez said the U.S. Attorney’s office will respond to the motion.
“We anticipate that there will be no public hearing on this motion; rather, it will be litigated through pleadings filed directly with the court,” Perez said. Perez asked for written input prior to June 5.
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Erik Ahlgren, an attorney for the defunct co-op, on June 1 acknowledged he had received notice from Perez and said the co-op’s board would be considering opposing the release.
In December 2018, Hennessey turned himself in to federal officials and in February 2019 pleaded guilty to mail fraud scheme and tax evasion. He stole more than $5 million from the co-op for several years, in part to finance big game hunting trips worldwide. The elevator facilities since then were sold to a cooperative based in Wheaton, Minn.
Hennessey was sentenced in June 2019 and turned himself in July 2019.
Hennessey initially asked the federal judge John Tunheim to place him at the Duluth Federal Prison Camp or at Sandstone, Minn. Tunheim recommended those two options, but the Bureau of Prisons instead imprisoned him at a low-security prison at Butner, N.C. Defense attorneys now describe the facility as a “hot spot” of COVID-19 cases. The prison is under a “modified operations” plan, with restrictions on external visitation, as well as screening for staff and inmates.
“It is difficult to imagine a more unfortunate BOP placement for Mr. Hennessey than FCI Butner, particularly if it was the result of administrative error rather than considered judgement,” his lawyers now say.
On April 17, Hennesssey asked for a reduction in sentence, according to the Bureau of Prisons. The bureau denied the request on April 24, citing a “length-of-service” criteria, which his lawyers said were an “informal, internal” policy.
A month later, Hennessey renewed his request.
At sentencing, Hennessey was represented by a private attorney, Thomas Kelley of Minneapolis. Now he’s represented by assistant federal public defenders Andrew Mohring and Eric Riensche of Minneapolis, who asked for the early release.
Mohring and Riensche said that the family reported that by about May 19, Hennessey had “fallen ill” with elevated blood sugar and nausea. They acknowledged he doesn’t exhibit COVID-19 symptoms, but that he “shares space” with an inmate who does exhibit elevated temperature, who “has tested positive for the virus.” Hennessey has tested negative once.
On May 21, Hennessey, through his lawyers, asked for home confinement in recognition of his vulnerability to the virus because of diagnosed illnesses — Type 1 diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), high cholesterol and obesity. A probation officer said Hennessey requires the use of an insulin pump.
Hennessey has served nine months of an eight-year prison sentence. After prison, the judge imposed an extra three years of supervised release and restitution. He has a release date of May 21, 2026, but with “good-time credit” could be out on home detention in November 2025.
The lawyers described a dire COVID-19 situation in the prison. About 37 inmates and three staff members had been infected as of May 11.
His lawyers, in a brief, said the prison had been “ravaged” by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“To state the obvious, the United States is currently in the grips of the virulent — and too-often deadly — COVID-19 pandemic,” they wrote, adding that social distancing is “difficult-or-impossible to implement” at the prison.
They cited Bureau of Prison figures that indicate the prison population went from two cases on March 20 to 2,340 as of May 4 — an accumulated increase of 1,060%, while the U.S. rate in general increased by 532% over the same two months. Infections per 1,000 people in prisons has increased to almost 14 — about four times the infection rate in the general population, at about 3.7 per 1,000.