Greed is a powerful motivator and, according to Arkansas and federal law enforcement, between June 1995 and fall of 1997, at least 11 residents of Phillips County, Ark., gave themselves over to its urges when they allegedly stole at least $2.4 million from Quincy Soybean Co.
On July 12, indictments for six Phillips County, Ark., farmers and employees of Quincy were announced by the U.S. attorney's office in Little Rock. If convicted of the federal charges of conspiracy and aiding and abetting falsification of grain certificates, the six men named are looking at up to five years of imprisonment, $250,000 fines and restitution.
The other five members of the alleged ring haven't necessarily escaped prosecution. A spokesman at the U.S. attorney's office told Delta Farm Press that the investigation is continuing.
The state charges initially brought against the 11 were for theft of property and forgery. Those charges were dropped pending federal prosecution. The state won't be able to prosecute them now because the statute of limitations has run, says Arkansas state police special agent Barry Roy.
Any punishment, says Roy, will come “from the feds. The IRS is definitely involved with this. Anytime a lot of cash is loose, the owner isn't liable to pay taxes on it. That means the IRS is going to be looking, too.”
In fact, two of the defendants have been charged with filing false tax returns. For that, they each face a maximum sentence of three years of prison and a $1,000 fine.
The way it worked
To this day Roy wonders where the initial idea came from. Was the plan a long time in the making? Was a switch flipped in some nefarious mind while watching a grain truck unload? And once the plan was hatched, how were so many convinced to enter the gang of thieves?
Roy does know this: when embarking on a life of crime, choose your criminal partners carefully.
“The stealing was discovered when a couple of these fellows got into a disagreement. One ratted on the other because they weren't getting a fair shake. If that hadn't happened, who knows how long this would have gone on? It may have been going on to this day,” says Roy.
In late 1997, Roy says, the informer did his deed and Quincy representatives went to the Phillips County sheriff requesting an investigation into their operation. In turn, the sheriff called Roy.
Investigators say it was soon evident that scale tickets were being double stamped. Stolen money was being paid to farmers, and the farmers were then kicking money back to the employees — a big sharing network of thieves, says Roy.
There were several ways the ring stole.
“Maybe I'd tell you if you brought in a load of soybeans, we'd run the truck across and then stamp the load a couple of times. Then, the farmer might get two or three checks instead of one. He'd then split whatever money he got with me — his inside man at Quincy,” says Roy.
Shortly into the scheme, the ring leaders realized that the farmers didn't necessarily have to bring a load in. Roy says thieving Quincy employees would get unwitting truckers up on the scale, then tell them to back up and try again.
“That's another way they were able to double stamp. They kept it hidden because when they would bill out their services, the bill would go to the farmer they were in cahoots with.”
Eventually, Roy and colleagues arrested 11 people on state charges. It wasn't a quick investigation. “It took two or three months to put all this together. There were thousands of documents to gather and go through.”
“You can't help but notice folks driving new vehicles and stuff. There were all kinds of rumors flying around about where the money was coming from. We couldn't figure out where he was getting his money,” says a farmer who knows one of the accused.
Apparently there were many people wondering the same. With their ill-gotten cash, the ring lived it up, says Roy. “They weren't shy about spending money. Some of the farmers bought farm machinery. One guy was building onto his house, and several were driving new vehicles.
“The amount stolen was constantly changing, according to how much soybeans were worth, how much they brought in. There was no typical amount for a check. A crooked farmer might have brought in only three or four legitimate loads, but have checks claiming he'd brought in 10 or 15 loads. That means big money was stolen quickly.”
In the indictment, the large number of tickets listed are typically in the $5,000 to $7,000 range.
Bringing in the feds
During his investigation, the case grew large quickly. Roy decided that a federal agency needed to be involved.
“We knew that USDA funds had been stolen. A USDA investigator came out and we worked together with Quincy employees to get to the bottom of this. We had to do audits and many other things. It was complex — not just sorting out tickets. And I guarantee you the federal agencies have done a lot more work on this than I did.”
In fact, the U.S. attorney's office says a USDA investigator is still working on the case.
“I have nothing to do with the prosecution, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if further indictments come down,” says Roy. “Any of the guys who weren't named this time may get hit in the next round. This is one of the largest theft cases we've had around here in a long time.”