The manager of a small-town Minnesota grain elevator who allegedly treated himself to exotic hunting safaris with millions of dollars stolen from farmers plans to plead guilty to federal criminal charges, his lawyer said Thursday.
Jerry Hennessey, who managed the Ashby Farmers Cooperative Elevator Co. for nearly 30 years, plans to plead to charges of mail fraud and tax evasion at a hearing in U.S. District Court on Feb. 14, said Thomas Kelly, his attorney.
Hennessey could face up to 20 years in prison on the mail fraud charge and five years for tax evasion, although his actual sentence will be based on complex federal guidelines. He’s estimated to have stolen about $5.5 million from the elevator company, according to Erik Ahlgren, a Fergus Falls lawyer hired by the co-op to recover the losses.
Chatty and personable, Hennessey was on a first-name basis with the world’s most renowned big-game guides, paying $50,000 or more for hunting safaris in Africa, New Zealand and Alaska. He spent more than half a million dollars to have his trophies mounted and built a barn-sized addition to display them at his home outside Ashby, a town of 440 residents some 165 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.
Hennessey allegedly wrote dozens of checks to himself on the co-op’s account, in amounts as large as $135,000, according to the criminal information. He used the money for a variety of personal expenses, including credit card debt, sporting equipment and recreational buildings.
Hennessey skipped town in early September, just as an $8 million bank loan to the elevator came due without assets to back it up. He was missing for nearly three months before turning himself in to authorities in early December.
Hennessey is “accepting responsibility for the action that he took,” Kelly said. “And this is part of his remorse: the quick resolution of the criminal case and not putting the government to undue or unnecessary expense and time.”
With Hennessey’s “public recognition of his wrongdoing, which has been clear and swift, we hope the court takes that into consideration,” Kelly added.
Kelly said there is no plea bargain, but both sides are free to ask the judge to depart from the sentencing guidelines. A sentencing date will be set after the plea hearing, typically for six to eight weeks later.
Meanwhile, Hennessey and his wife, Rebecca, face a civil suit in Grant County District Court seeking to recover at least some of the missing money.
“I’m happy he’s expressed a willingness to accept responsibility by pleading guilty, and we do hope he is going to cooperate with us,” Ahlgren said.
Ahlgren and Hennessey are scheduled to meet face to face next week as part of the effort to identify assets that can be returned to the co-op, which is owned by about 200 farmers.
Ahlgren said he’s been aggressive in trying to recover the missing money, even going so far as to send a process server to a convention of the Safari Club International last month in Reno, Nev.
“There were like 10 [safari guides] we had on our list, and we got about eight of them served” with legal documents, he said.