A Burnsville taxidermist who mounted more than a half-million dollars' worth of exotic big-game trophy animals for a small-town grain elevator manager should have known his client was paying the bills with ill-gotten money, according to a lawsuit filed this week.
Marvin and Betty Gaston, along with their business, Taxidermy Unlimited Inc., allegedly engaged in fraud and unjust enrichment, according to a civil complaint filed in Grant County District Court on behalf of the Ashby Farmers Co-Operative Elevator Co., in Ashby, Minn.
The couple's longtime client, Jerry Hennessey, is serving an eight-year term in federal prison after his conviction earlier this year for embezzling more than $5.4 million from the co-op, which he managed for nearly 30 years.
Hennessey admitted spending millions of dollars on exotic big-game safaris, taxidermy and property. He built a barn-sized addition to his home to hold dozens of his mounted trophies, including a giraffe, a hippopotamus, a Cape buffalo, a tiger and many varieties of hoofed animals.
According to the suit, Hennessey wrote more than $415,000 worth of checks to Marvin Gaston between 2013 and 2017, in amounts as high as $75,000.
The checks for Hennessey's personal taxidermy purchases were written on the elevator co-op's account, the complaint said, and therefore the Gastons "knew or should have known that they were taking checks from an agricultural cooperative, for expenses unrelated to the business of the cooperative."
Separately, Betty Gaston is accused of aiding Hennessey in a "scheme" to buy hunting property in Kanabec County using co-op money. According to the complaint, Betty Gaston obtained a cashier's check for more than $98,000 for Hennessey to use at the closing on the property sale. Hennessey then reimbursed her with a check drawn on the co-op's account.
In a court filing, the Gastons denied all the allegations against them.
Hennessey's 15-year swindle bankrupted the elevator that opened in 1908 in Ashby, a town of about 440 residents some 165 miles northwest of the Twin Cities. Its 200 farmer-owners have brought lawsuits against a range of people and businesses that dealt with Hennessey, hoping to recover some of what he stole.
The suit against the Gastons seeks repayment of more than $514,000.
Hennessey's former home outside Dalton, Minn., about 5 miles from Ashby, is on the market for $645,000. The buyer apparently will get Hennessey's big-game trophies; according to the real estate listing for his home, "The decor / furnishings truly are a conversation piece."