Questions in Union County: More Than Just Equipment

A federal grand jury indicted four men for their alleged involvement in a $1.5 million equipment theft ring that spanned four states. One of the defendants, Jason Habermel, was indicted on four counts of money laundering, accused of selling stolen equipment to the Union County Fiscal Court in Kentucky. However, purchasing records obtained by Eyewitness News raise additional questions about $10,000 worth of tires purchased through the county's road fund.

***

Andrew Elpers, 37, faces 32 counts of interstate transportation of stolen motor vehicles and one count of money laundering . The other alleged kingpin, Thomas Elpers, 62, faces two counts of possession of stolen motor vehicles. Jordan Wedel, Andrew Elpers' brother-in-law is charged with one count of possession of stolen motor vehicles. Jason Habermel, 43, faces four counts of money laundering.

The father-son duo operated with impunity for years, stealing and selling high-priced pieces of equipment from construction sites, dealerships and private properties, authorities said.

Between April 1, 2012 and December 29, 2014, Andrew Elpers illegally transported 32 stolen motor vehicles, many of which were vehicles used at construction sites and excavation, according to the indictment. Thomas Elpers received, possessed or had in his possession nine pieces of equipment that were stolen, according to the indictment. The indictment also alleges that Jordan Wedel possessed five pieces of equipment that were stolen. Lastly, the indictment alleges that Jason Habermel engaged in money laundering by arranging the sale and delivery of stolen equipment to the Union County Fiscal Court.

On New Years Eve, just days before announcing the arrests of Thomas and Andrew Elpers on local charges, detectives arrived in Morganfield, Kentucky, located in Union County, to seize six pieces of equipment, five of which were reportedly stolen, according to law enforcement sources. According to records obtained by Eyewitness News, the $100,000 worth of equipment was purchased over a six month stretch in 2014.

Now, the county is out the money spent on the equipment and the equipment itself.

Since then, the Union County Fiscal Court has discussed everything from potential road projects and proposed ordinances. However, ever since the raid, the magistrates and Judge Executive Jody Jenkins have yet to discuss the proverbial shadow hanging overhead.

How could a county government purchase this reportedly stolen equipment and have no idea it had been reported stolen?
Upon receiving information that some of the stolen equipment was located in Union County, Eyewitness News interviewed Judge Executive Jody Jenkins on January 14th.

"We purchased the equipment through what we could consider a reputable company or group," Jenkins said. "We bought the equipment in good faith. There wasn't anything out of the ordinary."

Jenkins has maintained that the county purchased the equipment not knowing it had been reported stolen. However, the market values of the equipment and some of the characteristics of the equipment cast further doubt on that claim.

According to records obtained by Eyewitness News, the county started doing business with Habermel who was salesman at Terre Haute-based Garzo Tire. Habermel was federally indicted on Thursday on four counts of money laundering.

Habermel's business relationship with union county began in January 2014, records show. What would follow would be a flurry of transactions that stopped as suddenly as they began.

In early April 2014, Union County purchased a 2012 "Case 50XB" tractor, records show. However, that model does not exist. Case does make a "CX50B" model. According to purchasing records, Union County paid $19,500 for the equipment. Jenkins signed the check written out to Habermel. According to the leading machinery trading websites, the estimated market value for similar pieces of equipment range from $40,000 to $55,000

In July 2014, the county bought a 2013 Case CX55B mini excavator for $19,875. The estimated market value on that piece of equipment exceeds $55,000, according to equipment trading websites. The Fiscal Court approved of the purchase on July 8th. According to law enforcement sources, that same piece of equipment was stolen from Koberstein Contracting, an Evansville-based business, from a job site near Memorial High School. The company purchased the mini excavator for $72,000 in March 2014, company officials said. The equipment was reported stolen on July 3rd, 2014, according to an Evansville Police Department incident report. Days later, the mini excavator was in Union County's possession for just under $20,000, according to purchasing records.

Similar discrepancies can be found on all but one of the county's purchase of equipment from Habermel.

There's also the question of the scratched out, filed off serial numbers. Many of the serial numbers found on the pieces of equipment were clearly altered or missing altogether.

Furthermore, according to purchasing records, not a single bill of sale came with a county's signature on it, nor were the bills signed in the presence of a witness.

Habermel also cashed -- not deposited -- most of the checks written to him by Jenkins, records show. According to the federal indictment, Habermel cashed each check at a Planters Bank location and then disbursed the money to Andrew Elpers and "other persons known to the grand jury."

At this point, it's unclear who those other people were.
 
The purchases for all but one piece of equipment came out of the coffers of the county's road fund. Each piece of equipment should have been inspected by Von Burklow, the county mechanic, according to Union County sources who spoke on the condition of anomynity.

On previous visits, Burklow was unavailable for comment. However, on the third attempt, Burklow came out of the shop.

He agreed to answer our questions, but not at first.

"Are you recording this?" Burklow said as Eyewitness News' cameras rolled. "Alright, I'll tell you what, I'm not going to talk to you about this. I'm not going to make any comment. I have talked to the FBI and EPD. [I have] cooperated with them. "Anything I say to the media, a lot of times, it could get distorted. They still have their investigation going and I have no comment."

After assuring Burklow that his comment would be well represented in our investigation, the interview continued. Eyewitness News showed Burklow a picture of one of the serial numbers found on the reportedly stolen equipment. and whether it threw up a red flag.

"No. No. Well, yes. That there does look altered," Burklow said.

The mechanic went on to say there was nothing suspicious about the equipment and all he did was change the oil and service it.

 JORDAN: But if you're ordering parts and attachments for it, you would need the serial numbers correct? VON: Correct."

"On these particular pieces of equipment, we didn't need to order parts, we needed to order consumables," Burklow said. However, purchasing records show that the county purchased two attachments for two pieces of equipment.

According to purchasing records, Judge Jenkins authorized the purchase of a 'Caterpillar tooth bucket reimbursement' in May 2014. A tooth bucket is a scooping device that attaches to the front of the machine. Two months later, receipts show the county spent nearly $9000 for so-called trimmer attachments.

"I don't know anything about this," Burklow said.

Before the equipment and all of its red flags started rolling into Union County, tires did. Some of the purchases appear to be legitimate but most of them don't , according to law enforcement sources. One of the county's first invoices from Garzo tire, which amounted to nearly $6500, is littered with question marks. Most of the tires fit SUVs and light trucks. When Eyewitness News cross-referenced those tires to the road department's inventory of vehicles, there were very few matches.

According to Eyewitness News' calculations through the purchasing records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, there are $10,000 worth of tires that simply don't match any vehicles at the county road department.

"Who signed this [check?]," Burklow said. Jenkins signed the check, according to the purchasing records. "I didn't sign this so I don't know anything about that."

Some of the invoices are vague and don't specify what official vehicles the tires were bought for. One of the invoices, dated June 27th, 2014, shows the county's purchase of four Uniroyal Tiger Paw tires for $604. The invoice clearly states they are passenger tires, purchasing records show. The invoice states the tires were for an official vehicle but they do not specify what official vehicle it was. Some of the other invoices specify what official vehicle received the new tires.

In the comments of the invoice in question, it clearly states and refers to an invoice from a Tornatta Tire location in Evansville. For reference, that's about an hour's drive from Union County. There are dozens of mechanics, repair shops and other car care facilities between Evansville and Union County.

It's important to note that neither Garzo Tire nor Tornatta have been implicated of any wrongdoing

"I don't know anything about that," Burklow said. "I didn't sign that invoice so I'm not aware of that."

Judge Jody Jenkins signed the checks and his name was on the invoices. But he, an elected official making $82,000, would not answer a single question.

"I don't have any comment. Thank you though," Jenkins said.

Burklow answered our questions for close to 20 minutes while Judge Jenkins walked away from them. The federal investigation started with allegedly stolen equipment but it could very well be just the beginning.

The Union County Fiscal Court meets again on April 14th.

Jordan Vandenberge reported this story. He can be reached at (270) 724 3398.


More Stories

Don't Miss

Trending Stories

Video Center