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 Tuesday, 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.
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 lawyer who was called in to help sort matters out.
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The last hunt
Hennessey, who had been general manager since at least 1989, 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 Sept. 10.
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-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.
A replica of the antlers is displayed at the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn.
"We got the hide out of Alaska," Marv Gaston of Taxidermy Unlimited in Burnsville, 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."
Early in investigation
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 said.
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 said. "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 has other assets, but we don't have enough to cover our obligations in full," Ahlgren said.
He says it may be several months before any distributions may be made.
According to a report in the Battle Lake 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.
The news was met by stunned silence from the people in the town of fewer than 500.
Tom Grover, the mayor of Ashby, said "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 said. "We need that business."