Ashby, Minn. – Jerry Hennessey was a jet-setter with a high-powered rifle.
He was on a first-name basis with the world’s most renowned big-game guides, paying $50,000 or more for exotic 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 this town of 440 residents some 165 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.
Chatty and personable, the 56-year-old was well known and liked in this community where, for nearly 30 years, he managed the Ashby Farmers Co-Operative Elevator Co.
But court documents allege that his high living was a sham, financed by a massive swindle that forced the elevator company to temporarily close on the eve of the busy fall harvest. In a civil case filed in Grant County District Court, the co-op has charged Hennessey with stealing more than $4.9 million over the past 15 years and spending the money on hunting, taxidermy, land purchases and personal expenses for himself and his wife, Rebecca, who is also charged in the case.
Hennessey skipped town in early September, just as a bank loan to the elevator came due with no grain in the bins to back it up. He’s been missing ever since, leaving state and federal investigators to sift through the tangled transactions that have left several hundred local farmers — the co-op’s owners — holding the bag.
In the nearly three months since he disappeared, Hennessey has been the talk of Ashby’s bustling Main Street, where locals gather for coffee and tater tot hot dish at the town cafe.
“It affected so many people in this area,” said Robert “Andy” Anderson, 91, a retired truck driver and lifelong resident. “I can’t understand a man that would do that to his family and friends.
“How can you stand and talk to a friend and stab him in the back at the same time?”
Janet Hamer, a clerk at Second Chance Thrift, said residents are amazed by the sheer size of the alleged theft.
“It’s really something,” she said. “I couldn’t see how such a tiny town could have such a big problem.”
Writing five-figure checks
Hennessey’s alleged scheme began to unravel when a “substantial” loan to the elevator came due on Sept. 1 from CoBank, a federal organization that provides financing for agricultural co-ops, said Erik Ahlgren, a Fergus Falls lawyer who represents the co-op.
When bank officials called the loan, the elevator didn’t have the money to pay. At the time, Hennessey told the co-op board members that he was refinancing the loan, Ahlgren said.
The board scheduled a meeting Sept. 10 to discuss the issue. Hennessey didn’t show up, and hasn’t been seen since.
In an affidavit filed with the court, Rebecca Hennessey said she hasn’t seen her husband since he vanished and believes he headed south to Des Moines. At some point, she said, her son called Hennessey’s cellphone and he answered, but then hung up immediately.
Rebecca Hennessey did not return phone calls last week seeking comment. In a court filing, she denied involvement in her husband’s alleged theft. She also has filed for divorce.
As police began their search for her husband, the co-op board surveyed the wreckage of the elevator’s finances. It turned out that Jerry Hennessey had been freely spending the co-op’s money since 2003, according to court documents. His actions were “brazen,” Ahlgren said.
Hennessey wrote hundreds of checks on the co-op’s account, according to the civil complaint, often putting them on the elevator’s books as purchases of corn, soybeans and feed. In reality, Ahlgren said, Hennessey was spending the money on hunting safaris, taxidermy, home improvements, hunting land and personal expenses for himself and his wife.
Hennessey spent more than $1.4 million of the co-op’s money over the years paying off his personal credit card debt, according to court documents.
He wrote many checks to Jay Link, a hunting guide based in Minong, Wis.; Sam Fejes, an Alaska master guide; Joe Jakab, who guides safaris in Europe and Greenland; and Chris Bilkey, a New Zealand hunting outfitter. Most of the checks were for five-figure sums, some for $70,000 or more.
Some Ashby residents had wondered how Hennessey, whose net income was about $85,000 a year, according to the divorce filing, could afford such expensive trips.
Ahlgren said Hennessey told people that he was doing well on grain trades he made for his own account.
Crates of trophy hides
Hennessey also allegedly spent more than $500,000 of the co-op’s money to have his big-game trophies mounted by Taxidermy Unlimited, an award-winning shop in Burnsville. Marv Gaston, who’s owned the business for 58 years, said he’s never seen anything like it.
“Normally, I can spot a phony-baloney guy a mile away,” Gaston said last week. “Him and his wife were such nice people. Everybody I’ve talked to can’t believe it, but it happened. It’s just absolutely amazing.”
Just before he disappeared, Hennessey and his wife had been on an extended hunting trip to Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Hennessey had shipped trophy hides from that trip to Gaston’s shop before he vanished. Now the hides are arriving — three crates of them so far, including elephant, water buffalo, Cape buffalo and impalas. Gaston doesn’t know what will become of them.
“They are high-scoring trophies,” he said. “It’s kind of been dumped in my hands. It costs me money every day just to keep the stuff on hand, and I won’t be mounting them.”
Nobody knows where Hennessey is, and there’s no telling if he’ll ever return. In a court filing, the co-op said it believes Hennessey may have used his hunting trips to set up overseas bank accounts.
“If Defendant Jerome Hennessey is living, it can be assumed that he has removed … property from the state to finance his daily living expenses,” the co-op said.
Meanwhile, Ashby residents are trying to figure out how anyone could get away with such a long-running scheme.
Russell Dewey, the co-op’s board chairman, was on a hunting trip to Montana last week and unavailable for comment. But others have their own explanations.
“The board members — they’re farmers,” said Dan Johnson, who owns the Hardware Hank store in Ashby. “They fertilize, they grow, they harvest. It’s like, ‘Jerry, you handle this.’ ”
Perhaps the simplest explanation came from Michelle Schaffran, manager of Second Chance Thrift.
“In small towns,” she said, “people trust everybody.”