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Fugitive Ashby elevator manager turns himself in, makes initial court appearance

Jerry Hennessey (Photo courtesy of the Battle Lake Review)1 / 2
This photo shows Jerome "Jerry" Hennessey in Mexico in January 2013. The photo was taken by Arizona-based hunting company Sonora Dark Horn. (Photo courtesy of Sonora Dark Horn)2 / 2

ASHBY — Jerry Hennessey, the fugitive manager of the Ashby Farmers Elevator Cooperative, turned himself into federal authorities after formal charges were filed, Monday, Dec. 3.

Hennessey is accused of using millions of dollars of elevator funds to help pay for big-game hunting trips over several years.

Hennessey, who had been on the lam since Sept. 10, turned himself in and made an initial appearance Tuesday before Magistrate Judge Katherine Menendez in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Federal authorities in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis charged Hennessey with mail fraud. Agents based charges on a $34,000 partial payment on Jan. 27, 2017, made for a 400-acre parcel in Kanabec County in Minnesota.

Hennessey, 56, had managed the cooperative in west-central Minnesota since 1988. Co-op lawyer Erik Ahlgren of Fergus Falls said Hennessey had taken unauthorized transfers from the co-op since 2003. He had spent $500,000 for taxidermy alone and had written checks from the elevator to individuals in the taxidermy and hunting industry, labeling the money as paying for corn, soybeans or other commodities.

The co-op owes $8 million to CoBank, a major cooperative lender based in Denver. The elevator closed its doors Sept. 14 and is now leased and managed by another elevator. Farmers who delivered grain to the elevator are owed hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In the complaint, IRS Special Agent Michael Leach said he talked to witnesses and had information from the Grant County Sheriff's Office and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

Among the things included in the complaint, Hennessey:

• Wrote more than $1.1 million in checks to himself. Numerous checks exceeded $40,000 and one was $135,0000. Checks were labeled as purchases of commodities.

• Made $1.1 million in payments for a personal Cabela's Visa card in his own name. Many of those checks were for more than $10,000 and four exceeded $30,000. Hennessey owns firearms hunting and sporting goods, all-terrain vehicles, a tractor and "many have been purchased from Cabela's," according to the complaint.

• Used company money to pay for hunting trip expenses including $280,000 to an international big game hunting company in Wisconsin. Another $245,000 went to a South African hunting safari company, including a payment of $100,000 in 2015. The website for the hunts includes numerous photographs of a hunt by Hennessey in 2015, with him sitting next to a lion.

• Paid a Burnsville taxidermy company from 2013 to 2017. A dozen checks ranged from a few thousand to $75,000—more than $400,000 in all. The taxidermist identified $26,000 for "South Africa Mounts;" $6,00 for "Zimbabwe Double Kudu Pedestals;" $3,000 for "S. Africa Backskins Tanning;" more than $1,800 for a "Zebra Pedestal." Some of the payments helped cover costs of shipping animals from trips to South Africa, Spain and New Zealand, and for a "camera man to take photographs during the hunts."

The complaint adds some detail to Hennessey's disappearance.

The IRS said several of Hennessey's family members attempted to call his cell phone on Sept. 10. Hennessey's friend and former worker, Tim Leonard of Fergus Falls, on Sept. 10 had driven Hennessey to Des Moines, Iowa, or more than 400 miles, a journey of more than six hours. Leonard told agents he dropped Hennessey off on the side of the road.

On Nov. 30, federal agents traveled to Des Moines, Iowa, and interviewed "P.A." an acquaintance of Hennessey. Hennessey told him he had "gotten greedy and (had) taken a lot of money from his employer." Hennessey asked P.A. if he could stay at their home, and P.A. declined.

Separately, Hennessey and his wife, Rebecca "Becky" Hennessey, face a civil lawsuit alleging $4.95 million in unauthorized payments, even though the co-op has since found fraudulent checks amounting to $5.5 million. Ahlgren had talked about adding double the amount in punitive damages, but the final complaint only included the $4.95 million.

"I've been saying for a long time, even though I wanted to find him, it wouldn't have any effect on (my civil case)," Ahlgren said "Today was the last day he was supposed to put in an answer to our civil complaint" and he missed that date.

"I may get to talk to him at some point," Ahlgren said.

U.S. clerks of court in the Minnesota and Iowa jurisdictions were closed for the day and were to be closed Wednesday, Dec. 5, for the funeral of former President George H.W. Bush.