Did safari hunter kill a co-op? Lawyer says Minnesota elevator manager stole more than $2 million
ASHBY, Minn. — The investigation is only starting into how much Jerome "Jerry" Hennessey could have stolen from the Ashby Farmers Cooperative Elevator that he managed for many years and Hennessey himself is "nowhere to be found" the Grant County sheriff says.
Much of the missing money — believed to be more than $2 million — appears to have gone to safari guides and taxidermy.
The co-op suddenly closed Sept. 14 and is for sale. Farmers who had delivered grain to the elevator will attend a meeting on Sept. 18 to talk about the status of the business and their credit sales contracts.
Jerry Hennessey was suspended without pay at a Sept. 10 board meeting. The long-time manager has not been seen by elevator staff for three weeks, and investigators are studying the books.
According to a report in the Battle Lake (Minn.) Review, the 300-member co-op in an April 2018 annual meeting reported $14.5 million in sales in the previous year. That included $2.8 million for grain handling and total local profits of $238,977.
Things started to unravel when the elevator failed to pay an operating loan with Colorado-based CoBank due Sept. 1, according to Erik Ahlgren, a Fergus Falls, Minn., lawyer who was called in to help sort matters out.
The last hunt
Hennessey had been general manager since at least 1989, succeeding Fred Risbrudt. Hennessey enjoyed a good reputation among colleagues at other elevators, who declined to be quoted by name. He became well known in the region for what one business person called "big, extravagant, far-away hunts." He'd built a farmstead complex a few miles away, in rural Dalton, Minn., across the Grant County line into Otter Tail County.
Hennessey's home is behind trees and hidden from view off a county road. It includes a large house, flanked by two even larger buildings, equipped with large garage doors, surrounded by ponds and trees. Townspeople say they'd heard that the home is where some of Hennessey's taxidermy is housed, but most say they hadn't seen it.
Hennessey had gone on an Australian safari for the last two weeks of August. He returned about Aug. 31 but reportedly didn't show up at the elevator during the Labor Day week.
When the elevator failed to make its operating loan payment, concerned CoBank officials tried in vain to reach Hennessey and then contacted the Ashby co-op board. The board in turn contracted Ahlgren, who specializes in bankruptcy trustee work and related financial issues. A co-op employee contacted Hennessey, who said he would show up at a board meeting on Monday, Sept. 10. His company pickup truck had been deposited at the elevator.
When Hennessey didn't show up at the Sept. 10 meeting, the board suspended him without pay. The board contacted Eide Bailly LLP, a Fargo, N.D., based accounting firm. By Sept. 12, Ahlgren had discovered more than $2 million in unauthorized checks not for business purposes.
"We learned there was a big discrepancy between what the financial statements showed and what we had in the bins," Ahlgren says.
The company did not have a new line of credit, so the board decided to "close the facility and to look for a successor-purchaser."
Ahlgren says an initial study showed Hennessey's unauthorized checks so far go back to 2008, beginning with payments to a personal credit card at Cabela's.
The spending increased in the past few years — more than $500,000 to a taxidermist, more than $375,000 to individuals associated with safari companies, and more than $1.1 million to a personal Cabela's Club Visa.
Ahlgren says checks went to individuals connected to safari-style hunts Hennessey would take in places like Alaska, New Zealand and Australia. At least one of the trips, to New Zealand, appears to have included Hennessey's wife, Becky, according to a written testimonial on the safari company's website.
It appears Hennessey wrote those checks himself, and, so far, there is no indication anyone else at the elevator was involved, Ahlgren says.
A May 24, 2018, article in the Minneapolis StarTribune described how Hennessey and a guide about five years earlier had shot a record-large bull moose on a 14-day Alaska hunt. The moose rack had an "outside spread" of 66 ⅝ -inches, or more than 5 ½ feet wide, and was too valuable for the original to be displayed in public.
The International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn., was seeking a moose to display at the center. They asked Marv Gaston of Taxidermy Unlimited in Burnsville, Minn., if he knew of a moose that could be displayed there. Gaston "immediately thought of Hennessey's Alaskan souvenir." Gaston agreed to replicate the moose antlers and used a moose hide from Alaska.
"We got the hide out of Alaska," Gaston told the StarTribune. "That was $5,400. I'm not sure how much was paid for the replica antlers. But Jerry (Hennessey) agreed to cover the costs so the wolf center could have its exhibit."
Elevator officials say that instead of attending the board meeting on Sept. 10, Hennessey spent the day with a friend from Fergus Falls. The friend reported to an elevator employee that he'd spent that Monday night in a vehicle with Hennessey. On Sept. 11, Hennessey directed the friend to drop him off at a location south of Alexandria, Minn. Hennessey reportedly told the friend to leave so that he would not be able to see who might pick Hennessey up in case the friend was questioned about it. Hennessey had a backpack with him but nothing else.
On Sept. 12, the co-op filed a theft report with Grant County Sheriff Troy Langlie in Elbow Lake, who met with the board on Sept. 14 in Ashby.
Langlie says he has assigned a deputy to the case, and his department is seeking to bring in the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"It doesn't sound like the USDA is going to be able to open up a federal case on this matter, but nonetheless an agent is assisting us on some matters," Langlie says.
Langlie says the department is looking at "a lot of data."
"It's far too premature in this investigation to be looking at charges; no doubt that will come, the way it looks," Langlie says. "It's our understanding that he is nowhere to be found at this time. We, ourselves, have not looked for him. ... We don't know what we would be questioning him on, at this stage."
Ahlgren says Ashby Farmers Cooperative Elevator likely won't be able to pay obligations to farmers in full, and what they do pay will take time. The company has crime liability insurance that may only cover $100,000 in losses "per occurrence," but it isn't clear how occurrences are counted. The company also has bonds, which farmers may be able to recover.
"The company has other assets, but we don't have enough to cover our obligations in full," Ahlgren says.
He says it may be several months before any distributions may be made, which will be difficult for farmers who already are facing financial pressures due to trade wars and low commodity prices.
"I think at the very earliest it'll be several months," he says. "I have no expectations that we'll be able to make distributions before the end of the year. It may be a year or possibly even longer before the entire matter is dealt with."
The news was met by stunned silence from the people in the town of fewer than 500.
Tom Grover, the mayor of Ashby, says "any business closing in a small city is devastating" to the five or six employees, and he says the unexpected turn of events "hurts."
"Hopefully, someone will come in and take it over so it doesn't close," Grover says. "We need that business." People who come to the elevator buy fuel and stop at restaurants or buy supplies at another local cooperative.
Todd Finkelson, owner of T&B's Short Stop, a convenience store and bait and tackle shop, says trust with a local business is gone.
"This is going to hurt. The overwhelming response from everybody is concern for the farmers. Of course there are five employees over there, and they're all good people. Nobody expected this was going to happen, or that it was happening," he says.
Hennessey, who is 55 or 56, reportedly has four adult children, including three who live in the community. A son-in-law worked in operations at the elevator, but Ahlgren says there is no immediate indication anyone but Hennessey is responsible for the transactions.
"I think part of his cover-up story was that he was doing (personal) grain trading, and that's how he was able to afford this, what is really a lavish lifestyle," Ahlgren says.
Langlie, who is in the midst of his first election challenge in a post he's held as an appointee after serving as a chief deputy, says this is the third elevator financial investigation his department has dealt with in as many years.
One case in Hoffman, Minn., was three years ago and brought a lengthy investigation. Another is at Herman, Minn., and is being handled by the USDA. Neither is completed.
"These are more of a data investigation," he says.
The Ashby co-op formerly was a member of the Minnesota Grain and Feed Association until 2015. Last winter, Agweek covered a seminar at their annual meeting about establishing procedures to prevent unauthorized transactions and employee fraud.