Jerry Hennessey’s three-month run from the law is over.
The fugitive former manager of a small-town Minnesota grain elevator who disappeared in September after allegedly stealing nearly $5 million from the business, surrendered to authorities Tuesday before appearing in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, where he was charged with mail fraud.
The 56-year-old from Dalton, Minn., who had managed the Ashby Farmers Co-Operative Elevator Co. in nearby Ashby for nearly 30 years, had been on the run since early September, when he skipped town just as a bank loan to the elevator came due with no grain in the bins to back it up.
Hennessey appeared Tuesday before Magistrate Judge Katherine Menendez and was formally charged with sending fraudulently obtained money through the U.S. mail. He was allowed to go free after the hearing provided he adhere to numerous conditions imposed by the judge. Among them — his location will be electronically monitored and he cannot leave Minnesota without permission from his probation officer.
Details of Hennessey’s whereabouts for the past several months and of his surrender were still unclear as of Tuesday night.
Earlier this fall, the co-op sued Hennessey in Grant County District Court, accusing him of stealing more than $4.9 million from the business. That lawsuit and the federal charge filed Tuesday allege that Hennessey stole from the co-op for 15 years, spending the money on exotic hunting safaris, taxidermy, outdoor gear and personal credit card debt.
According to the federal complaint:
The investigating agent for the Internal Revenue Service said in an affidavit that Hennessey wrote more than $1.1 million worth of checks directly to himself, including one check for $135,000. According to court documents, Hennessey coded his fraudulent checks as purchases of corn, soybeans and wheat for the co-op.
The federal complaint also hinted at Hennessey’s possible escape plan as his long-running scheme crumbled.
Documents showed that the co-op board called a meeting for Sept. 10 to discuss “suspicious transactions” after a loan to it from a federal agricultural bank went overdue. Hennessey didn’t show up for the board meeting.
Federal investigators later learned that he had gone early that morning to a friend’s home and told the friend he was “in big trouble” and needed help. The friend drove Hennessey to Des Moines and dropped him off on the side of the road.
Once in Des Moines, Hennessey called an acquaintance, identified as P.A., and asked to meet at a motel in the area. According to the complaint, Hennessey told P.A. “that he had gotten greedy and taken a lot of money from his employer.”
Hennessey asked if he could stay at P.A.’s home, but P.A. said no.
The federal complaint also mentioned a piece of land that Hennessey bought in the Hinckley, Minn., area. Joey Tromburg sold the roughly 400-acre parcel to Hennessey as deer-hunting land. A check mailed to Tromburg for about $34,000 in partial payment was cited as the basis for the mail fraud charge.
“Very nice, personable guy,” Tromburg said of Hennessey in an interview last week. “He did talk about hunting a lot. You could tell that was his passion. I was told that he owned an elevator company, so I saw checks coming from an elevator co-op and I thought nothing of it.
“I just assumed he was a wealthy person, a passionate hunter — nothing unusual at all.”
When investigators called Tromburg to ask questions about the case, he said he wasn’t quite sure what they were talking about.
“They told me just to Google him,” Tromburg said, “and call back.”
Talk of the town
Over the past three months, Hennessey has been the talk of Ashby, a city of 440 residents about 165 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.
Erik Ahlgren, a Fergus Falls lawyer who represents the co-op, said that one of the first questions townspeople ask when they greet him is, “Have they found him?”
Hennessey’s surrender may bring some closure, Ahlgren said, but his return to Minnesota doesn’t mean everybody will be paid back. He said he hopes to liquidate some of Hennessey’s assets to reimburse those who are owed money. So far, Ahlgren has tallied up about $5.5 million in unauthorized checks, up from the $4.9 million noted in the civil suit he filed.
“My job is to try to collect as much as I can,” he said. “I know I’m not going to make them whole. And having him convicted of his crimes isn’t going to make people whole either.”
But, he added, there will be a sense of justice.
“I think it just irks people that he left,” Ahlgren said. “The common thought was that he left the country and was sitting on a beach.”
Others thought he “was in Africa hunting,” said Ashby Mayor Tom Grover, who got wind Tuesday that Hennessey had turned himself in.
“I don’t really know what to say about that,” he said. “He did wrong and maybe he saw the light and decided to turn himself in.”
Now it’s up to the federal officials to prosecute him, said Grover, a former Ashby police chief who has been mayor for 16 years.
“It’s been devastating,” Grover said. “It’s hard on a small town like Ashby. … I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to recoup everything.”
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