The fourth and final defendant federally indicted as part of an elaborate equipment theft ring that targeted high-priced pieces of heavy construction equipment is sentenced in federal court Thursday morning. Thomas Elpers, 64, was sentenced to four years probation. One of the major factors in Elpers receiving probation is his cooperation and ‘substantial assistance’ with the federal investigation into allegations of public corruption in Union County, Kentucky, federal officials said.
A contrite and apologetic Elpers appeared in federal court flanked by his two attorneys and nearly a dozen supporters. During his sentencing hearing, four friends and family members spoke in favor of a more lenient sentence for Elpers. Supporters lauded Elpers’ prior good deeds, including hiring people who were down on their luck or had just been incarcerated. Supporters described Elpers as trustworthy, saying his criminal acts were an aberration.
“I’m sorry it all happened,” Elpers told the court.
The indictments stemmed from a multi-year, multi-state equipment theft ring allegedly run by Elpers and his son Andrew. The two men were initially arrested on state charges of burglary and theft. However, a few months later, a grand jury indicted the two men on federal charges of either possessing or transporting stolen motor vehicles across state lines. Andrew Elpers was also charged with one count of money laundering. Wedel, Andrew’s brother-in-law, was indicted on one count of possession of stolen motor vehicles. Habermel was indicted on four counts of money laundering, accusing of brokering the sale and delivery of heavy equipment to the Union County Kentucky Fiscal Court. Wedel and Habermel previously received probation. Andrew Elpers is currently serving out his sentencing at a federal prison.
Thomas Elpers had no criminal history prior to the theft ring and upon questioning by law enforcement, Elpers was personally accountable for his criminal wrongdoing, Judge Richard Young said.
When law enforcement served a search warrant in the winter of 2014 at Elpers’ property in northern Vanderburgh County, they reported finding multiple pieces of heavy equipment totaling more than $285,000. Many of the pieces of equipment were being used by Elpers for his private landscaping business. Elpers was also accused of being in possession of a pickup truck that had been stolen but was registered at the BMV by way of a fraudulent VIN number.
“This is a crime of greet isn’t it Mr. Elpers?” Judge Young said.
In addition to not having a criminal history and displaying accountability, Elpers provided ‘substantial assistance’ to the federal government’s investigation in the Western District of Kentucky, Judge Young said. Specifically, Elpers assisted federal investigators who were looking into the conduct of public officials and allegations of kick-backs. According to federal law enforcement sources, the investigation centers around the Union County Fiscal Court and Judge Executive Jody Jenkins.
As Eyewitness News has extensively reported, public records show the fiscal court and Judge Jenkins purchased multiple pieces of stolen heavy equipment that would later be seized by the FBI. Many of the pieces of equipment were purchased at rock-bottom prices and just below the $20,000 threshold in which state law requires government agencies to have the purchases publicly bid out.
In late February 2017, co-defendant Jason Habermel stated that he got involved in the theft ring through his longtime family friend Elpers, who reportedly stated that his son, Andrew, was behind on his child support. The elder Elpers told Habermel that the equipment was stolen, he said. Habermel told the court that he used the contacts he created through his employment at Terre Haute-based Garzo Tire to advertise the equipment.
According to records obtained by Eyewitness News, Habermel was already in a business relationship with the Union County Fiscal Court and Judge Executive Jody Jenkins before Habermel sold the equipment to the county.
Under oath, Habermel stated Andrew Elpers set a price on the stolen equipment that was to be bought by the Union County Fiscal Court. The price was set at just below $20,000 at Judge Jenkins’ direction, Habermel said. This was done to avoid triggering the state’s model procurement law which requires government agencies to publicly bid out purchases that exceed $20,000, according to Habermel’s testimony.
The county’s business transactions with Habermel began in early 2014 and abruptly stopped six months later. In all, the county purchased six pieces of equipment and two attachments totaling more than $100,000. According to purchasing records, every piece of equipment was purchased for less than $20,000 a piece. However, according to the leading heavy equipment trading websites, the equipment the county purchased commonly fetches anywhere from $40,000 to $50,000 a piece.
While there were more than a half dozen transactions between Habermel and the county, Habermel was only charged in connection with four of those transactions.
Habermel stated that he would take the checks signed by Judge Jenkins and cash them at a Planters Bank location in Union County. From there, Habermel stated he would take anywhere from $500 to $1500 from the proceeds as a ‘brokerage fee.’
Habermel wasn’t the only person taking a cut of the proceeds, according to his testimony.
While under oath, Habermel told the court that Judge Jenkins would ask for a ‘cost of doing business’ in Union County that would be anywhere from $2000 to $2500. Habermel’s attorney later characterized these transactions as ‘kick backs’ for Judge Jenkins. Habermel would also implicate Union County Clerk Trey Peak and local businessman Steve Eckels. As Eyewitness News has previously reported, Eckels has often received preferential treatment in terms of being awarded county contracts.
Jenkins has repeatedly maintained that the county purchased the equipment in good faith and didn’t know the equipment had been reported stolen.
During Elpers sentencing hearing Thursday morning, Judge Young said he gave Elpers consideration because of his substantial cooperation with the public corruption investigation.
Elpers will have to pay more than $200,000 in restitution and serve 60 hours of community service.
The Kentucky division of the FBI is investigating the involvement of Jenkins and other in the equipment theft ring. Despite the investigation taking more than two years, no charges have yet been filed against any Union County official. However, law enforcement officials tell Eyewitness News that the investigation is ongoing.