A North Dakota farmer has been detained in Ukraine on allegations that he tried to arrange the assassination of a Ukrainian agriculture official. However, Kurt Groszhans’ family and friends say he’s an honest businessman who appears to have gotten “tangled up” with the “wrong people.”
“He's just a good person, and he just has a passion for farming, and he just loved going back to the country where our ancestors came from,” said his sister Kimberly Groszhans, in an interview on Monday, Nov. 22. “He didn't do this.”
“We are extremely concerned for his health and safety,” said his sister Kristi Magnusson. “We just want him home and to be able to have a fair investigation into these circumstances.”
According to Ukrainian media reports, Kurt Groszhans and a Ukrainian woman named Olena Bohach have been placed in pre-trial detention for 60 days for attempting to arrange the assassination of Roman Leshchenko, the Ukrainian minister of agrarian policy and food.
Groszhans, 50, grew up on farm in the Ashley, area of south-central North Dakota, the youngest of three, according to his sisters.
“I guess you could say farming is just in his blood,” Magnusson said.
Their family emigrated from Ukraine to the U.S. in 1910, and knowing that piqued his interest in the country. After a farm tour in the early 2000s, they said Kurt continued to make trips to Ukraine and eventually began farming there and set up a farm company. He also owns land in North Dakota, some of which his sisters said he rents out and other portions that he contracts with someone to plant and harvest.
Kurt Groszhans explained his connection to Leshchenko in an August post on Medium, in which he describes himself as “a humble American investor in the Ukrainian agro-industrial sector” and as “a deceived American investor.” His family confirms he wrote the piece. In the post, one of several places online where Groszhans has aired his grievances with Leshchenko, he wrote that Leshchenko had been the manager of Groszhans’ farming business in Ukraine, and Groszhans alleges that Leshchenko “began to withdraw my working capital starting from the fourth his working day at my company to his family company and use my seeds on his lands.”
Groszhans’ post claims Leshchenko in 2019 made a large contribution to the presidential campaign of now-Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Zelensky named Leshchenko to two high-ranking government posts in 2019 and 2020 before naming him minister of agrarian policy and food of Ukraine in December 2020.
The Ukrainian Weekly, which describes itself as being published by “the Ukrainian National Association, a fraternal non-profit association,” explained that Groszhans’ allegations and the media learning of a lawsuit he filed with the Kyiv Commercial Court came out the same week as Leshchenko’s confirmation to the ag minister post. The lawsuit, the story said, alleged Leshchenko had embezzled $430,000 from Groszhans.
“Mr. Leshchenko responded to the allegations by saying he had repaid ‘all debts to the American investor,’ Ukraine Business News said in a daily note to the business community,” the Ukrainian Weekly reported.
Groszhans’ family knew about his troubles with Leshchenko and the lawsuit he had filed. Prior to that, they were unaware of any problems Groszhans in Ukraine. But that didn’t ease their anxieties over his international business.
“Every time he made that trip, we always wondered if we’d see him again,” Magnusson said.
According to Ukrinform, described as a Ukrainian multimedia platform for broadcasting, Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky referred to Groszhans’ claims as an attempt to make Leshchenko pay “imaginary debts.” In a Nov. 18 briefing, Monastyrsky said the Ukrainian Department of Strategic Investigations began investigating reports in August that a Ukrainian woman was seeking a contract killer, Ukrinform reported. Monastyrsky said the person the woman contacted acted as a contract killer while cooperating with the National Police, so all communications between the woman and the person were recorded.
Monastyrsky also referred to a “U.S. citizen,” later identified as Groszhans, as the “main perpetrator of this crime,” while also claiming the “U.S. national” had previously ordered the murder of a debt collector and that the murder in that case was faked.
Ukrinform reported that Monastyrsky said a deal made on July 17 included a $20,000 deposit and an agreement that the murder would be committed after Groszhans returned to the U.S., which is why the Ukrainian government decided to arrest Groszhans while he was still in Ukraine.
Ukrinform also reported that Monastyrsky “showed a video in which the interlocutors discussed the details of the murder.”
"He's just a good person, and he just has a passion for farming, and he just loved going back to the country where our ancestors came from. He didn't do this."
- Kimberly Groszhans
“And so I screenshot the message and sent it to Kurt, wondering if this was, like, some kind of scam or something like that,” she said.
When Kurt didn’t respond to any of her calls or messages, she researched the situation and talked to the person who sent the message; she was able to confirm that her brother was in a prison cell in Ukraine.
The family has been unable to talk to Kurt or verify his health or safety. They have sought information from the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, North Dakota’s congressional delegation and the State Department. The offices of all three members of the delegation — Sen. John Hoeven, Sen. Kevin Cramer and Rep. Kelly Armstrong — have responded and been in contact with the family, Kimberly Groszhans said.
Hoeven's office confirmed they have been in contact with the State Department over the matter.
“After hearing from Mr. Groszhans’ family and friends, our office contacted the State Department to ensure his well-being and that he is being provided with the appropriate due process. We will continue to be in touch with the State Department,” Hoeven’s office said in a statement.
"We are aware of reports of the detention of a U.S. citizen in Ukraine. We take seriously our responsibility to assist U.S. citizens abroad and are monitoring the situation. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment," a State Department spokesperson said in a statement.
“We have not been able to have any phone contact or any type of contact with my brother to know of his condition, his safety, health, anything like that,” Magnusson said.
Through tears, she explained that Kurt was planning to return to North Dakota around the beginning of December for Christmas.
Groszhans’ family said they did not know and had never heard of Bohach, the woman arrested along with Kurt. And while they don’t believe the allegations against him, family friend Tara Brandner said the family’s biggest concern is the lack of communication that has come from the embassy to the family. In addition to ensuring that Kurt is healthy and safe, they also want to make sure he has access to legal resources. They are seeking a lawyer with international experience that would help in the case. Anyone with information can email email@example.com.
Brandner said Kurt Groszhans “is well respected in the community as a farmer and as a person.” She suspects he “got tangled up” with “the wrong people.”
“And he’s in the middle of it,” she said.