As Eyewitness News first reported, Union County Judge Executive Jody Jenkins said the county Fiscal Court ‘unknowingly’ purchased stolen equipment that was reportedly tied to a $1.5 million equipment theft ring. However, as Eyewitness News has uncovered, this stolen equipment came with some obvious, glaring red flags. How did county officials miss them?
In early January, after an extensive investigation, authorities arrested Thomas Elpers, 62, and his son Andrew Elpers, 36, for allegedly masterminding a $1.5 million theft ring involving heavy machinery. Both men were charged with burglary and theft. When the Vanderburgh County Sheriff’s Office announced the arrest, Sheriff Dave Wedding said additional arrests could be made in connection with this case. Nearly a month later, Eyewitness News has learned the FBI has taken over the investigation because much of the stolen equipment was taken across state lines.
In this case, which is typical of other theft rings involving machinery, the stolen equipment was sold for well below market value and the serial numbers were significantly altered or removed all together, said Sheriff Dave Wedding.
He was born with mud on his boots. For John Luecke, it was part of growing up in his father’s shop located in Florissant, Missouri.
“I’ve had this mentality and — I have to thank my parents for this — is that my name means more to me than the money,” Luecke said. “If I say I’m going to do a job, I do it. I stand behind it.
Luecke could have inherited his father’s trucking business. Instead, he decided to carve his own path and started his own, JTL Landscaping LLC.
“I’m the one guy,” Luecke said, adding that he has roughly a dozen employees. “I’m a one man band. I’m the banker.”
In the spring of 2011, business was good and Luecke decided to invest back into his business. He purchased two large pieces of heavy equipment, including a Caterpillar 289C compact track loader.
It was brand new.
“There wasn’t one payment. The machine had 75 hours on it,” Luecke said. “The total value on that note was $162,000. [They were] the largest pieces of equipment that I bought at the same time. My monthly payment was $4000 a month. At first, I didn’t think I could really swing it but I had to have that motivation that I had to find the work to pay it off “
Like buying your first car, Luecke was proud of what he had accomplished. But his biggest moment turned into what would become his biggest setback.
It was July 2011. Luecke was working on a new parking lot in nearby Chesterfield.
“We left them out there overnight, every night with no problems,” Luecke said. “I came back and they’re in the same spot they usually are. Over the weekend, we came out on a Monday, and I was going to work it. I couldn’t believe what I saw. It was gone. It was missing. You could see the tracks leading right out of the parking lot.”
He would never see it again. Chesterfield Police took a larceny report and canvassed the area. However, by the time the report was taken, Luecke’s equipment was 175 miles away in Vanderburgh County, police said.
“I’m one of those guys that’s more of a worker. I believe that if you do good, you get treated good and nothing bad is going to happen,” Luecke said. “I come to find out that it does happen to anyone I guess.”
Luecke wouldn’t be alone. In 2014, the incidents spiked with 9 reported thefts, Sheriff Wedding said. Some of the victims included: Tri-County Equipment, Daylight Farm Supply, Whayne Supply Company and Sulaar Construction. Equipment was either stolen or located in four different states: Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri and North Carolina.
The theft ring, allegedly masterminded by Thomas and Andrew Elpers, spanned four states.
“They probably sold them to people at a very discounted price. The people may or may not have thought something was up with it. Those are things that we’re working through,” Sheriff Wedding said at the January 13 press conference. “We need to figure if other people will be charged with purchasing some of this stolen equipment.”
Stealing and selling heavy equipment is an estimated billion dollar a year business, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
On New Years Eve, just days before announcing the arrests, 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 equipment was purchased over a six month stretch in 2014.
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.
However, according to records obtained by Eyewitness News, Habermel Equipment was neither a company nor a group. It was one man: Jason Habermel who ‘did business as’ Habermel Equipment.
According to the Kentucky and Indiana Secretaries of State and the Vanderburgh County Recorder’s Office, there is no documentation that supports the official existence of Habermel Equipment. Even if a company is doing business under a fictitious name — or DBA — the owner must file paperwork with the proper county and state.
Despite this, Jenkins and the Union County Fiscal Court did business with Habermel anyway.
According to documents obtained by Eyewitness News through the Freedom of Information Act, the county purchased six pieces of equipment from Habermel over a six month stretch in 2014. The expenditures, which were funded by taxpayer dollars, amounted to nearly $100,000.
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 purchasing records. According to the leading machinery trading websites, the estimated market value for similar pieces of equipment range from $40,000 to $55,000
On April 22nd, purchasing records state the county purchased a 2011 Caterpillar 289C track loader for $19,950. The estimated market value on that piece of equipment is between $36,000 to $50,000, according to equipment trading websites. Jenkins signed the check written out to Habermel, according to purchasing records.
At one time, this particular piece of equipment belonged to John Luecke, according to law enforcement sources.
“This is crazy,” Luecke said as he examined Union County’s purchasing documents. “It’s heartbreaking. Come to think of it, this is pure profit for the guy [who stole it]. He got something for nothing and he got rid of it for 25 cents on the dollar.”
It’s difficult for Luecke to comprehend considering what he paid.
“I paid roughly $75,000,” Luecke said. Union County paid less than $20,000.
The Fiscal Court’s transactions with Habermel kept coming.
In June 2014, according to purchasing records, the county purchased a Takeuchi skid steer for $16,500. That price is approximately $10,000 less than the estimated market value, according to equipment trading websites.
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.
Prior to uncovering this information, Eyewitness News interviewed Jenkins and asked him about how this equipment was purchased. Jenkins also denied knowingly purchasing stolen equipment.
“We have a model procurement process. Anything, if you’re buying it used that doesn’t exceed $20,000, you look at other comparable pieces of equipment. You look at two other things that are comparable in shape, model or year,” Jenkins said. “There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.”
Purchasing records dispute Jenkins’ claim, considering the well below market value prices the county purchased the equipment for. The ‘company’ that the county did business with also did not exist, according to state records.
All of the equipment was sold for less than $20,000 as well. Under Kentucky’s model procurement laws, anything that exceeds $20,000 must be bid out by the Fiscal Court.
After uncovering additional information, Eyewitness News attended the most recent Fiscal Court meeting to ask Jenkins to answer additional questions about the county’s purchase of stolen property. Jenkins agreed to answer some questions before he was whisked away by Brucie Moore, the county attorney.
Moore came out of Jenkins’ office a few minutes later. Jenkins, however, did not.
“We refer any other comments to the investigating agency,” Moore said. “I think we’ve answered all of your records requests. I think because it’s an ongoing investigation, I would refer you to the authorities who are here.”
Eyewitness News continued to press Moore, asking her about how the county purchased equipment that had some obvious signs of being stolen. Moore didn’t waiver.
“I would just refer any and all other comments to the detectives that are investigating the case. Excuse me,” Moore said as she walked away.
Eyewitness News then presented Moore with a picture of a serial number belonging to one of the pieces of seized equipment, the Case CX50B. The serial number has definitively been altered. In fact, it’s almost indecipherable.
“You’re putting something in front of me that I have never seen before. I think that’s unfair. I wish you would talk to Det. Jeff Hands who is standing out in the hallway there,” Moore said.
Moore never answered our questions and Jenkins never came out of his office. In fact, he didn’t attend the Fiscal Court’s committee meetings which typically follow every Fiscal Court meeting.
Eyewitness News then presented the picture to Luecke and asked him if he would purchase a piece of equipment that had an altered serial number.
“No,” Luecke said. “When something is too good to be true, it is too good to be true. There’s no such thing as a once in a lifetime sweet deal.”
Moore refused to allow Eyewitness News to speak to Judge Executive Jody Jenkins.
Having his equipment stolen set Luecke back financially and delayed production. The insurance company eventually replaced it, Luecke said.
“I had my insurance company for four or five years at the time,” Luecke said. “When we renewed that next year, [the insurance company] felt like I was too high of a risk because they had to pay out on the machine.”
After digging himself out, business is good again, Luecke said. When he thinks about it, it’s not about the money in his pocket.
It’s about the mud on his boots.
Habermel declined to comment on this story. Officials from the FBI told Eyewitness News that they cannot comment on an ongoing investigation. However, the FBI urges anyone with information on this case to contact the Evansville field office at 812-434-8262.
Reporter Jordan Vandenberge worked on this story. He can be reached via telephone at 270-724-3398 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.