Since 1937, the farmers near Ashby, Minnesota have used their co-op grain elevator to collect and ship their corn, soybean, and wheat. Everybody owns a piece.
That co-op is now defunct—which, according to court documents, comes courtesy of Jerry Hennessey. He signed on as the co-op’s manager back in 1989 and, starting in 2003, began to use its money for things suspiciously unrelated to soybeans.
He started writing co-op checks to pay his bills, remodel his Dalton home, even buy land in either his name or his wife Rebecca’s. Most lavish of all were his exotic hunting trips to Alaska, New Zealand, Australia—and the extravagant taxidermy showroom he filled with his trophies. There were tigers, zebras, and a big old kudu from Zimbabwe, all artfully stuffed and posed next to leather chairs and a huge in-house bar.
To that effect, he allegedly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at Burnsville's Taxidermy Unlimited, owned by Marvin and Betty Gaston. Hides and heads arrived from “Uganda, New Zealand, Spain, and South Africa,” but Hennessey’s checks were internally labeled “corn,” seed,” or “soybeans.”
Hennessey eventually admitted to spending about $5.3 million of the co-op’s money on personal expenses, and agreed to paying it back in restitution, on top of his eight-year prison sentence. But now the farmers have another bone to pick—this time with the Gastons.
Erik Ahlgren, a lawyer representing the co-op, filed a complaint against Taxidermy Unlimited demanding they pay back more than a half-million dollars in unauthorized expenses. He says the couple knew, or “should have known,” that the money wasn’t legit, but accepted it anyway. After all, what do a bunch of grain farmers need with a stuffed kudu?
“They just had to look at the check and say, ‘We’re not doing business with a co-op, so why are we getting checks from a co-op?” he says.
Taxidermy Unlimited declined to comment on this story, so it’s hard to know what the Gastons were thinking. But according to Ahlgren, other businesses Hennessey tried to pay wouldn’t play ball, including a company that refused to deliver a front-loader to Hennessey’s house.
When Hennessey was sentenced in June, Darrell Franze, a farmer from Battle Lake, spoke on behalf of the co-op’s board of directors. Yes, he said, the loss of money was devastating. At the time, the farmers had over $2 million in grain sold to the elevator that hadn’t been paid for. But they’d lost more than that.
“We look at certain individuals, auditors, and businesses, and we wonder why no one could have raised an issue with any of the unauthorized transactions,” he said. That trust—in their neighbors and the surrounding community—is something they can never recoup.