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Seasonal worker didn’t know former boss was escaping after fraud accusations

Jerry Hennessey (Photo courtesy of the Battle Lake Review)

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — Tim Leonard was awoken early on Monday, Sept. 10, by a steady knocking on the front door of his house in north Fergus Falls.

“I yelled, ‘What the hell! It’s 4 a.m.’ ” Leonard recalls. His alarm turned to confusion when he heard the familiar voice of Jerry Hennessey, his revered friend and general manager of the Ashby Farmers Elevator Cooperative.

There was “trouble at the elevator,” Leonard remembers Hennessey explaining. “I need your help!”

Leonard said he had not spoken to Hennessey for more than a year prior to his old boss showing up at his door. For some reason, Hennessey hadn’t called Leonard to help on this year’s harvest. He hoped the early-morning visit was about a job.

Soon, Hennessey was heading into the night in a co-op pickup truck. Shortly after, Leonard followed. After a 21-mile trip, they arrived at the familiar Ashby co-op offices, where Leonard expected to confront some grain spill or mechanical emergency.

Instead, Hennessey came out of the elevator offices carrying a backpack and a cardboard box. Reportedly a diabetic, he later told Leonard the box contained four months’ worth of insulin supplies.

The two got into Leonard’s car.

“Just drive,” Hennessey said.

‘I shouldn’t be telling you this’

Leonard declined to specify his route except to say that they didn’t go north. He said his old boss wanted to take back roads, telling him they needed to avoid places where there might be cameras.

At the time, Leonard said, he had no idea that Hennessey would be accused of stealing $4.9 million from the elevator.

Earlier reports in Agweek cited sources who had heard that an unspecified friend (Leonard) had dropped Hennessey off south of Alexandria, Minn. That’s technically so, but the two may have driven much farther south.

In an Oct. 25 interview at his home in Fergus Falls, Leonard declined to confirm reports that he went as far as Iowa. He acknowledged the drive went on “a long time.”

Leonard occasionally said “I shouldn’t be telling you this,” but continued anyway, describing his encounter with Hennessey.

‘He was my hero’

Leonard, 49, grew up on a farm near Alexandria, Minn., where he was listed among the graduating class of 1987, but said he graduated in 1988. Hennessey graduated from Barnesville High School in 1980.

Leonard worked “on-and-off for 25 years” for the Ashby elevator, almost always during the harvest. Hennessey managed the place since 1988 or 1989. It was gritty, dusty work, but Leonard took pride in it.

At the elevator, Hennessey was friendly, although Leonard said he didn’t spend much time with his boss.

Leonard said he occasionally helped with jobs around the Hennessey home in rural Dalton, Minn., between Fergus Falls and Ashby. On such occasions, they would often have a beer together. He couldn’t say whether the work was paid for by the elevator or Hennessey.

He was impressed with buildings on the homestead, populated with trophy taxidermy from all over the world. He admired Hennessey’s family — his children and his wife, Becky, who was always “super nice.”

Everything Hennessey touched “seemed to turn to gold,” Leonard said. His outward success became larger than life through the years, out of Leonard’s league.

“If I shoot a deer, catch a fish, what’s that? He’s killed one of everything on the planet,” Leonard said.

But Leonard was happy for him.

“He was my hero,” he said.

‘Like seeing Superman go down’

During his southward flight, Hennessey had little to talk about. At one point, he explained to Leonard that there was “missing grain.” Hoping to be helpful, Leonard suggested Hennessey could “call up some farmers” and get some grain in to make up for what was missing.

Leonard slowly realized Hennessey was abandoning his family and told him he shouldn’t leave them. Hennessey replied that Becky was going to be so angry that things were beyond repair.

“It’s like seeing Superman go down,” Leonard said. “It sucks.”

After an unspecified time on the road, the two exchanged some heated words. Leonard told Hennessey he needed to get back to Fergus Falls. He had family responsibilities to take care of and was working on finding a job.

“I told him to get out,” Leonard said. He didn’t ask where Hennessey was going and didn’t want to know. He doesn’t want him to come back.

Hennessey — who allegedly diverted $4.9 million from the co-op for his own use and had just returned from a hunting trip to Australia — didn’t even pay for the gas.

Hennessey “apologized for it,” Leonard said, then acknowledged the man had betrayed him.

“He stiffed me,” he said.

Where is he?

Leonard said he doesn’t go to Ashby anymore. He said he thinks it’s common knowledge at Ashby that he was the one who helped Hennessey disappear.

He’s heard that the Hennessey family is angry with him, but can’t explain exactly why.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said.

When the news reports in Agweek and elsewhere started describing allegations against Hennessey, Leonard was surprised and disappointed.

An elevator employee was calling around to Hennessey’s friends to see if anyone knew where the long-time general manager had gone. Leonard told his story.

Later, the Grant County Sheriff’s Department questioned him. The case was referred to the U.S. attorney’s office, and on Oct. 25, Leonard was questioned by a special investigator. The agent took his cellphone — at least temporarily.

Leonard said the phone records would confirm that he hadn’t talked to Hennessey at all or much for the entire previous year. He speculated the agents might be looking for what cell phone tower his phone connected to on the trip.

Before he and Hennessey parted, Leonard said Hennessey told him that when he got home to Fergus Falls, he should “throw my phone in a slough.” Leonard didn’t argue with him, but didn’t throw the phone away, either.

Leonard said “everyone asks” where he thinks Hennessey has gone, at one point joking that he could conjure his old hero from a back room in his house. Leonard said he has no clue, but nothing would surprise him.

Leonard acknowledged being “a little worried” about his friend, especially relating to his health.

“I just miss him, and I hope he’s doing good,” Leonard said.

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