The Great Organic-Food Fraud

tractor shooting out money from its pipe
Illustration by Tyler Comrie; Source photograph from Getty

There’s no way to confirm that a crop was grown organically. Randy Constant exploited our trust in the labels—and made a fortune.

Glen Borgerding met Randy Constant in the late nineteen-nineties when landowners in northern Missouri hired them to help set up an organic soybean farm. Borgerding, an agronomist from Minnesota, took soil samples and made recommendations about fertilizer and weed control; Constant, a Missouri native who had a day job as a regional sales manager for the Pfister seed company, ran the farm’s day-to-day operations. By then, Borgerding had spent more than a decade in organic agriculture. Constant had not, but he had evident ambition. Borgerding recently told me, “Randy was an exciting guy to be around—when things were working well.”

Constant, then in his thirties, had a degree in agricultural economics from the University of Missouri. Since graduating, he had “worked his way up the agricultural corporate ladder,” as his wife, Pam, later put it. In the eighties, a time of collapse in America’s farming economy, he had taken a series of sales and managerial jobs across the Midwest, before returning with Pam and their three children to live in Chillicothe, Missouri—a town of about nine thousand residents, ninety miles northeast of Kansas City, where he and Pam had grown up. Constant became active in Chillicothe’s United Methodist church, and later served as president of the town’s school board.

Constant appeared to be “the epitome of the Midwestern guy,” Ty Dick, a former employee, said recently. “Straightforward, healthy, wholesome.” Constant wore button-down shirts; his hair was always neatly combed. Hector Sanchez, who once worked for Constant in Chillicothe, recalls his former boss’s solicitousness: “He always asked me, ‘Do you need anything? Are you good ?’ ” When Constant met Borgerding, he had recently become licensed to sell real estate, and he occasionally sold a farm on behalf of Rick Barnes, of Barnes Realty, in Mound City, Missouri. Barnes, who told me he used to think that Constant missed his calling by not selling real estate full time, said, “He came across like a deacon in the church. He probably was a deacon.”

After the soybean-farm collaboration ended, Borgerding and Constant discussed starting a business together. “I had a lot of trust in him,” Borgerding said. “I felt that he had a lot of integrity. I felt that we had a very unified vision of what we wanted to accomplish.” In 2001, they founded a company, Organic Land Management.

John Heinecke lives and farms near Paris, Missouri, a hundred miles east of Chillicothe. When I called him to ask about Constant, he said, “That cocksucker. He screwed me over to fucking death.” Heinecke was about to drive to his weekend house, on an inlet at the Lake of the Ozarks, and he agreed to meet me there a few days later.

We spoke on his screened-in porch, which had a view down to his dock and his motorboat. Heinecke, who is in his early sixties, was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and a fentanyl patch; he talked of spinal injuries related to a lifetime of agricultural lifting. Now and then, we had to shout over the straight-pipe speedboats screaming down the lake’s main channel.

Heinecke first went bust in the mid-eighties, when he was farming rented land. “Bank called my notes,” he said. By the time he met Constant, in the mid-nineties, he was enjoying a period of success as a contract farmer, working fifteen hundred acres for various owners. “I probably had forty farms or so,” he said. “A lot of little farms. I was a patch king!”

Heinecke used to have a sign at the end of his driveway which read “i shoot every third salesman.” Constant, pitching for Pfister, came to the door. Heinecke remembered him as “a smooth talker, one of these guys you have to worry about.” Constant enlisted Heinecke to become a local seed salesman for Pfister. That was their business relationship for the next few years. Then, around 2000, Constant asked if Heinecke knew of any pastureland that wasn’t being used. Heinecke mentioned a nine-hundred-acre farm, owned by a relative, a section of which hadn’t been tilled in years. “Can you rent that?” Constant asked. He then explained that he wanted to farm it organically.

Heinecke recalls replying, “Tell me what this organic deal is.”

More than in most retail transactions, the organic consumer is buying both a thing and an assurance about a thing. Organic crops are those which, among other restrictions, have been grown without the application of certain herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. Close scrutiny of a crop of non-organic tomatoes might reveal that they had been exposed to these treatments. But it might not. And an organic product can become accidentally tainted if proscribed chemicals carry across from a neighboring crop. The rules forgive such contamination—to a point. Testing for residues is not common in American organic regulation.

The real difference, then, between a ton of organic soybeans and a ton of conventional soybeans is the story you can tell about them. The test, at the point of sale, is merely a question: Was this grown organically? That’s not like asking if a cup of coffee is decaffeinated. It’s more like buying sports memorabilia—is this really the ball?—or like trying to establish if a used car has had more than a single, careful owner.

The organic story has legitimate power. A farm’s conversion to organic methods is likely to increase biodiversity, reduce energy consumption, and improve the health of farmworkers and livestock. And, to the extent that agricultural chemicals enter the food supply, an organic diet may well be healthier than a conventional one.

When Constant asked Heinecke about pastureland, American organic agriculture had just begun booming. In 2000, organic sales in ordinary supermarkets exceeded, for the first time, sales in patchouli-scented health-food stores. During the next five years, domestic sales of organic food nearly doubled, to $13.8 billion annually. The figure is now around sixty billion dollars, and the industry is defined as much by large industrial dairy farms, and by frozen organic lasagna, as it is by the environmentalism and the irregularly shaped vegetables of the organic movement’s pioneers.

“When I return to public office, some people had better watch out.”
“When I return to public office, some people had better watch out.”

A new national system of organic certification, fully implemented in 2002, helped spur this growth. Previous regulation, where it had existed, had been uneven: farmers in Iowa could become organic by signing an affidavit saying that they farmed organically. Given the inscrutability of a crop’s organic status, the new system was likely to preserve an element of oath-making, but the reliance on trust was now overlaid—and, perhaps, disguised—by paperwork. Organic farmers, and others in the organic-food supply chain, were now required to hire the services of an independent certifying organization—one that had been accredited by an office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Organic Program. A certifier kept an eye on a farm’s operation, primarily through an annual scheduled inspection.

Among the new federal rules: land subjected to non-organic treatments couldn’t be converted to organic production overnight. The process would take three years. Given how fast the organic market was expanding—including for meat, eggs, and dairy products, derived from animals given only organic feed—land that needed no transition period became valuable.

Organic Land Management proposed to find such land and, in exchange for a share of a farmer’s profits, get it certified, and then help grow and market the crops. “At the time, conventional corn was, let’s say, two dollars a bushel,” Borgerding told me. “The first corn crops that we sold were three-seventy-five and four dollars a bushel.”

Constant and Borgerding never worked out of the same office. Borgerding made deals with farmers in Minnesota and the Dakotas; Constant kept farther south. Their company’s pitch was bound to appeal to farmers who had bad credit, or other problems. John Heinecke, the patch king who’d struggled with bankruptcy, agreed to join. In Overton, Nebraska, Constant also signed up James Brennan and his father, Tom—a decorated Vietnam veteran whose alcohol abuse, connected to P.T.S.D., would lead to several convictions for drunk driving.

Within a few years, Organic Land Management was handling six thousand acres, on a dozen farms in five states. In the eyes of American regulators, this was a single operation, requiring only a single organic certification—as if the company’s scattered fields were divided only by railroads or rivers, rather than by, say, Iowa.

Constant and Borgerding settled on Quality Assurance International, based in San Diego, as their certifier. This was not the cheapest option. Q.A.I.’s core business was certifying food-processing companies, not farms; its name is now on every other box of American organic cookies and cornflakes. I recently spoke with Chris Barnier, who, between 2004 and 2007, oversaw Organic Land Management’s finances and records. Though he did not directly criticize Q.A.I., he said, “It’s a huge flaw in the organic industry that the farmers pay the certifier—sometimes many thousands of dollars. The certifier has a conflict of interest, because they really don’t want to blow the whistle on a fraud.”

Moreover, any inspection, however principled the investigator, is likely to be cursory. After Barnier left Organic Land Management, he worked for a while as an inspector himself. He explained that extending a farm visit beyond a couple of hours—looking at paperwork, asking questions—can feel like a provocation. The cows need milking, the kids are whining. An established grain trader recently told me that the certification industry is essentially toothless, adding, “If you saw my operation, then came and saw what they do on an inspection, your mind would be blown. I do thousands of transactions a year. They look at three.”

Borgerding told me, “Chris and I worked real hard to maintain the integrity of things—to make sure all of our organic paperwork was in order.” Nevertheless, he acknowledged that he had been drawn to Q.A.I. partly because the company was perceived not to nitpick: “It was not my intention to abuse their potential leniency. But I think they kind of glossed over things.” And, because Q.A.I. inspectors were not farm specialists, “they—at least at that time—were a little bit unaware. It was just more of a foreign territory to them.” He added, “They’re way out in California! What did they know about Midwest agriculture?” (A representative for Q.A.I. said that its inspectors understand the “intricacies of their particular region’s agricultural industry.”)

Constant and Borgerding were able to pay themselves a hundred thousand dollars a year. The Constants, who had a son and two daughters, the youngest of whom was in her teens, moved into a spacious house on Oaklawn Drive, in Chillicothe’s more monied end. Their furnishings included ceramic rabbits, two crosses, and a framed map of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, where the family liked to vacation.

Looking back, Borgerding can see that he failed to notice warning signs about his partner. He said that, in Missouri, he “would mention Randy’s name and people would just close down, back off.” He knew that Constant always had a side project. “When I hooked up with him, Iwas the side project,” he said, referring to Constant’s job at Pfister. “But it always haunted me a little: What happens when our business becomes the main project? What would Randy do on the side?”

He recalled once watching in awe as Constant deflected an agricultural inspector’s query about record-keeping. In a flurry of paper, “Randy threw down this document, tied to thisdocument, and tied to this document, and presented it as ‘It’s so obvious, any idiot can figure this out—why can’t you?’ ” The inspector retreated. Today, Borgerding has a sense that he witnessed a charade. But, he said, “the tone in Randy’s voice, and the way he acted, it was like Novocaine—it just put you at ease.”

In 2001, Constant, on behalf of Organic Land Management, signed a contract to deliver organic soybeans from farmers it worked with to a facility in Beardstown, Illinois, owned by the Clarkson Grain Company. Clarkson, which buys grain from farmers and sells largely to food manufacturers, was an early specialist in organic grain and in grain that is not a genetically modified organism, or a G.M.O. The grain industry was then being transformed by such new products as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans and corn, which are genetically modified to survive in fields sprayed with Roundup, a weed killer made by the company.

A non-G.M.O. crop might or might not be organic, but a genetically modified crop is definitely not organic. Today, it’s nearly inevitable that a commercial buyer of organic grain will subject the crop to a G.M.O. test, which can take only a few minutes. But in 2001 it was unusual for such buyers to test every delivery. Clarkson did.

A Clarkson employee who worked at Beardstown at the time recently recalled that Organic Land Management’s soybeans, arriving by truck, tested positive for G.M.O.s. The drivers said that they must have accidentally loaded grain from the wrong storage bins at the farms. The next day, “the trucks came back,” the Clarkson employee told me. “More loads with the same results.” These, too, were sent away. Constant called up, furious, claiming that there was a mistake on Clarkson’s end. The trucks kept coming in for about a week, then stopped. “We eventually tore up the contract with Randy,” the Clarkson employee said. “We guessed at the time that he had found another buyer who was not testing for G.M.O.s.” In a recent call, Lynn Clarkson, the founder and C.E.O. of Clarkson, compared Constant to an Internet scammer. “He’s testing, just like the ransomware guys,” he said. “They want to test your defenses and see if they’re working.”

Around the time that Clarkson rejected the soybean trucks, Duane Bushman, who runs a grain-trading business in Fort Atkinson, Iowa, bought his first load of certified organic corn from Organic Land Management. Bushman felt confident about the transaction: he had visited two Organic Land Management farms. Over the next several years, he bought corn from the company in increasing quantities. Then something odd happened. During a phone conversation in the first half of 2006, Constant mentioned that he was out of corn from the previous harvest. But in a second call, a week or so later, Constant suddenly had a supply. He told Bushman, “I found five more railcars!” A railcar holds about a hundred tons of corn. Five railcars might be the annual yield of a modestly sized Missouri farm. Constant’s corn was covered by his company’s organic certification, but Bushman felt uneasy, and asked to see transaction certificates, which can indicate a load’s date and place of origin. Bushman, who was about to go on a work trip, told his assistant, Linda Holthaus, who had worked for him for several years, “Don’t pay him for those five loads until you get the T.C.s.”

When Bushman returned from his trip, Holthaus had paid for the order. She had also taken a new job, at Jericho Solutions—a grain brokerage that Randy Constant and his friend John Burton, a Missouri farmer, had just set up. In September, 2006, Constant created a branch of Jericho Solutions whose registered address was Holthaus’s home, in Ossian, Iowa.

Bushman tried and failed to reach Constant. Eventually, he Googled “Organic Land Management, Inc.,” found Glen Borgerding’s name, and called him. Borgerding was sympathetic, noting that it was often hard to get Constant to return calls, and asked if he could help.

“Well, there’s this paperwork on the railcars that you guys sold,” Bushman said.

Borgerding was confused: “Excuse me?”

“Remember those railcars?” Bushman said.

Borgerding told Bushman that Organic Land Management had never sold grain to Bushman’s company.

There was a pause. Bushman then asked, with evident anxiety, how much corn Organic Land Management had been growing in Missouri in recent years. About fifteen hundred acres, Borgerding said. Both men were again silent. Borgerding recalls, “You could have heard a pin drop.”

The math didn’t work: Bushman had been buying far more corn from Constant than could possibly have been grown on Organic Land Management’s Missouri farms. It began to dawn on Borgerding that “we were not talking about a load or two—we’re talking millions of dollarsof grain.” He recalls concluding that Constant might have just been acting as a broker on the side—buying grain from other organic farmers and then selling it on. Borgerding laughed, weakly, then said, “Or he was doing something else.”

Constant was, in fact, passing off non-organic grain as organic grain. The scheme, in which at least half a dozen associates were involved, is the largest-known fraud in the history of American organic agriculture: prosecutors accused him of causing customers to spend at least a quarter of a billion dollars on products falsely labelled with organic seals.

“I have a feeling he understands more than we think.”
“I have a feeling he understands more than we think.”

Clarence Mock, a Nebraska lawyer who represented Mike Potter—one of the farmers who worked with Constant—recently proposed that the scheme may have been sustained, in part, by a disdain for organic consumers. “There was a little bit of a sense of effete, latte-drinking, Volvo-driving people,” Mock said. “The whole idea of organic corn versus other kinds of corn, you know—once you grind it up and put it into cornmeal, who the hell knows the difference?” The scheme’s participants, Mock went on, had perhaps recognized that misrepresenting grain as organic was “kind of naughty,” while telling themselves, “Nobody’s getting hurt, or getting sick. It wouldn’t be, like, ‘We’re drug manufacturers, and we’re giving people bad drugs.’ ”

Several organic old-timers I spoke with said that farmers often turn to organic production purely for the price advantage. At that stage, they may find the organic idea absurd, or at least discomforting: more work, more weeds, probably a lower yield. Some give up. For others, the experience of farming organically—of ending a reliance on chemicals and their providers, and perhaps seeing healthier animals, among other satisfactions—creates a convert.

This wasn’t Constant’s path. He seems to have begun with one idea for easy money—four dollars a bushel, and someone else doing the labor—and then discovered that within reach was a way to get money that was so much easier.

A farm’s organic certification is good for a year. It doesn’t get used up by sales. If a farmer has only a dozen organic apple trees, but agrees to sell you a million organic apples, you’re unlikely to learn that you have a problem merely by looking at the orchard’s certification. As the established grain trader explained, “Some certifiers put the acreage on the certification. Some don’t. It isn’t a U.S.D.A. requirement. It’s nuts!”

On at least one occasion, a farmer working with Constant treated a field with herbicides and pesticides—but left the perimeter untouched. To a neighbor, or a hurried inspector, the field would look as scrappy and weed-infested as it should. (Rick Barnes, the real-estate agent who employed Constant, told me that every organic farm “looks like a disaster.”) But Constant’s illicit activities rarely required much guile. In a market that often seems to value a certificate of authenticity over authenticity, all he had to do was lie.

Constant came to learn that, as long as he maintained control of some fields certified as organic, almost nothing stood in the way of his selling non-organic grain obtained elsewhere, as if it all had grown in those fields. In 2016, his sales of organic corn implied a yield per acre of about thirteen hundred bushels—about ten times any plausible number. That year, Constant controlled some three thousand acres certified for either organic corn or soybeans, and brought in about twenty million dollars. If, as Mock suggests, the organic consumer could be seen as a chump, Constant’s greater disregard may have been for the organic regulators and traders who agreed to take him at his word. As the Clarkson employee said of Constant, “In his mind, he could slick-talk anyone, and had no fear of actually getting caught.”

It isn’t hard to see how Constant had developed this confidence. When he was young, the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune had frequently run admiring stories about him. He was a “hard nosed” defensive end on his high-school football team; he called in a report of vandalism to the police; he won scholarships and raised funds for charity. And he was clearly on a path to agricultural success: in 1974, at the age of fifteen, Constant became the “barnwarming king” in the local chapter of the Future Farmers of America. He went on to become the group’s chapter president, and to represent his district at a national conference. He won an F.F.A. award for his agricultural record-keeping, and another for his recitation of the organization’s creed, which includes these lines: “I believe that American agriculture can and will hold true to the best traditions of our national life and that I can exert an influence in my home and community which will stand solid for my part in that inspiring task.”

In negotiations with business partners, Constant liked to say, “Look, I’m just a dumb farmer.” John Heinecke said of him, “Hell, he didn’t know shit about farming.” This is perhaps unfair. Though it may have been odd to think of Constant driving a tractor, he could certainly join a conversation about tractors. “Randy could speak the language of agriculture,” Lynn Clarkson told me. Constant’s sales pitch sometimes included a savvy appeal to nostalgia: organic farming, he would say, was just like “how we did it in the sixties.”

Constant leased a few dozen acres of farmland near Chillicothe, and at times he managed thousands of acres elsewhere. But when he called himself a farmer—say, when he ran for the Chillicothe school board—he was simplifying a career of unrelenting hustle. Constant sold seeds, soybeans, fish, and real estate; he considered growing cilantro, for Chipotle restaurants, and growing marijuana; he explored an investment in “lingerie football,” played by women, with their midriffs exposed.

A former employee of Constant’s, who was keen to remember his better qualities, nonetheless described him to me as “friendly and presentable, but calculating.” Other associates shared similar impressions. In the early two-thousands, a young soybean farmer, Ben Austic, spent a week with Constant in London, on a junket that the Missouri Department of Agriculture had organized for people connected to organic farming. Austic, who has since become a Baptist minister, noticed that whenever the group’s conversation turned away from organic farming—say, during the intermission of “Les Misérables”—Constant cranked things back to sales opportunities. “I don’t mean this in an evil way, but he was always scheming,” Austic said. “If you’ll forgive the term, he was a bullshitter.”

In 2006, Constant started selling his grain through Jericho Solutions, the brokerage that he set up with his friend John Burton. Instead of negotiating with a trader like Bushman, Constant was now his own trader. He could present Linda Holthaus, Bushman’s former assistant, with grain and certifications for grain. And Holthaus, from her time with Bushman, knew where to find customers. In Jericho, Constant now had a reliable, in-house buffer between his grain’s source and its eventual customer. (Holthaus, who has not been accused of any wrongdoing, did not reply to requests for comment.)

In June and August, 2007, two stories published by The Organic & Non-GMO Report, a trade magazine, gave the first public hints of Constant’s deceptions. The articles centered on a Nevada company that processed soybeans. It had bought some supposedly organic soybeans from Jericho Solutions, but they had tested positive for G.M.O.s. The contamination was said to have cost the company a hundred thousand dollars. The magazine quoted Holthaus, who sounded defiant: “There was no problem on our end. We had the paper trail. . . . Someone’s trying to nail us for something we didn’t do.” Apparently without evidence, she blamed Chinese soybeans that had passed through the Nevada facility. The soy processor said, in response, that it had never had a G.M.O. problem with Chinese soybeans.

I asked John Heinecke about this episode. By 2007, he no longer had an Organic Land Management contract, but he remained open to working with Constant. The Nevada facility had been tainted, Heinecke said, by “railcar loads of fucking Roundup Ready beans.” He began to yell. “And Randy knew they were, because he knew what he bought! I sold them to him! I sold him the goddam railcars!” Heinecke said that he’d bought the soybeans from a Missouri landowner for whom he farmed. “I said, ‘Randy, these are Roundup Ready beans.’ He said, ‘I don’t care. Put ’em on a car. I’ll take care of it.’ ”

Constant and Borgerding, his partner at Organic Land Management, decided to sever ties in April, 2007. They agreed that Constant could keep the company’s name. Borgerding told me that the split was friendly, and the result of a cash-flow crisis. But he also said that in 2006 Constant had wildly underreported soybean yields on his portion of Organic Land Management farmland. (“It got dry toward the end of the summer,” Constant had claimed.)

There’s no evidence that Borgerding was involved in wrongdoing, and his reputation in the organic world remains strong. But, like many other former Constant associates, he can’t exactly say that he was floored when, in 2017, federal agents turned up at Oaklawn Drive, in a convoy of vehicles. He had picked up some worrisome clues about Constant’s undeclared side projects. The odometer on Constant’s truck had suggested incessant travel: it clocked hundreds of miles a day. And Constant had increasingly pushed for puzzlingly high-risk investments, like buying land in Colorado. “What the heck do we want to do in Colorado?” Borgerding had asked himself. “It never rains there.”

As Borgerding sees it, he became “dead weight” when he resisted such efforts to rapidly expand the company. So Constant found another way: “With Linda coming on, with all her contacts, suddenly he had a big market. And that became his main gig.”

After Borgerding left Organic Land Management, he stopped speaking with Constant. “It’s like you’re in one of the lifeboats on the Titanic,” he said. “You’re paddling away from the thing as fast as you can before it goes down and sucks you down along with it.”

In 2010, Constant called Heinecke for the first time in a while.

“John, I need some corn.”

“Not a problem. We’ve got half a million bushels.”

“Well, let’s load it there at Goss—the rail siding.”

Goss, a mile or so from Heinecke’s home, is a quiet place to do business: in the last census, the town had a population of zero. The siding hadn’t been used for years. Heinecke usually delivered grain to Stoutsville, six miles from his home, or at the Mississippi River, forty miles away. “To this day, I have not figured out how Randy got that siding open,” Heinecke told me. Constant’s success derived partly from his mastery of the railroad freight system, apparently learned during his years of corporate agricultural work.

Heinecke agreed to supply Constant, who, he said, offered “more than the local price, and more than I could get at the river”—a dollar a bushel more than another buyer would have paid, a premium of at least twenty per cent at the time. A bushel of corn weighs fifty-six pounds. Trucks can carry between five hundred and a thousand bushels. A railcar typically carries thirty-five hundred bushels, or about a hundred tons. When Heinecke began making grain deliveries at Goss, Constant usually gave him forty-eight hours to complete the task. In that time, Heinecke would normally fill seven railcars. He told me that, within a year, he had filled about a hundred.

This corn came either from land that Heinecke farmed, as a leaseholder, or from land farmed by neighbors. None of it was organic. Heinecke told me that he never claimed that it was. “It was non-G.M.O., but I was using modern fertilizer, right?” he said. “Phosphorus and nitrogen—the stuff we do for everything. I was using herbicides.” He went on, “I sold everything to Randy Constant. I didn’t sell to nobody else.”

“Keep in mind that by the day of the wedding I plan on being jacked.”
“Keep in mind that by the day of the wedding I plan on being jacked.”

Heinecke isn’t an easy man to like: he is susceptible to covid-19 conspiracy theories, and on the day we met he announced his racism with a flat statement of prejudice. He is estranged from both his father and his oldest child. Although he fulminated to me about Constant’s slipperiness, he also made a case for not pressing buyers too hard about their intentions. He recalled once asking a buyer who had purchased some moldy corn from him about his plans for it. “Do you like doing business with me?” the buyer said. “I don’t ever want to hear you ask that question again.”

Heinecke told me he’d always assumed that Constant was selling to buyers of non-organic grain. Theoretically, yes. Constant might have had such customers—he had a lot going on—but his land-management company had “organic” in its name, and his brokerage described itself as devoted to “Organic Planning, Production & Marketing.” There’s no sign that Constant, in the years that he bought from Heinecke, ever sold grain that wasn’t described as organic. During this time, corn labelled organic was often worth twice as much as conventional corn. As a railcar began inching out of Goss, its twenty-five-thousand-dollar load became a fifty-thousand-dollar load.

In 2010, Constant was paid $16.5 million for organic grain. By 2015, the figure was $24.4 million.

Jericho Solutions once claimed to be the country’s fourth-largest organic-feed operator. Clients’ payments would be deposited in the Luana Savings Bank, in Luana, Iowa, a town of some three hundred people about twenty miles from Linda Holthaus’s home. The bank stands on the town’s edge, surrounded by fields.

On February 10, 2017, for example, a customer banking in Sonora, California, transferred $419,417.50 to Jericho’s account in Luana. Duane Bushman told me that Constant regularly sold grain to a Sonora-based company called Oakdale Trading. (The established grain trader knew of this relationship, too.) Bushman knows Oakdale’s owner, Jim Parola, and he remembered a time when Parola “started to brag” that, for a period of some weeks, he had been able to send ten railcars of Constant’s corn a week to the East Coast, and ten loads to the West Coast. Bushman recalled once asking Parola about his confidence in Constant’s grain: “He said that as long as he had a certification that’s all he had to care about.” (Parola didn’t respond to requests for comment.)

A soybean processor in Iowa told me that he handled hundreds of tons from Constant, even after he learned that the grain was sometimes being loaded up in a Walmart parking lot in Chillicothe. (“We’re, like, ‘Walmart doesn’t grow soybeans,’ ” he recalled, laughing.) Holthaus reassured him: if Constant was concealing his grain’s source, it was surely only to prevent other buyers from wooing his farmers. And so the Iowa processor continued to accept them. The soybeans were certified, he reminded me; it was all “in good faith.”

After discovering that Constant was under criminal investigation, the processor continued to work with Holthaus for another year. He told me, in a matter-of-fact way, “I make money when I am crushing grain.”

In the early two-thousands, Sue Baird, who held a degree in poultry science, helped set up Missouri’s state-run organic-certification body, and became an inspector herself. Her friendship with Constant began around then, when Organic Land Management’s farms in Missouri briefly used her organization for certification, before switching to Q.A.I. In 2004, Baird helped organize the London junket, and invited Constant along. For two years, she worked in Q.A.I.’s head office, and she later became president of the Missouri Organic Association, a trade group for farmers. She now serves on the National Organic Standards Board, a high-profile committee whose members are appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture. On that committee, tensions have risen between an organic movement with a long history and a newer corporate industry that is often impatient for growth. In 2017, Baird supported organic certification of farms relying on hydroponics, or growing without soil—a scandalous idea to some traditionalists.

Although Baird had maintained a good relationship with Constant, she sometimes betrayed doubts about his business ethics. Borgerding told me that, shortly after breaking ties with Constant, he complained to Baird that Constant had apparently swindled him out of his share of their 2006 crop; she told him that Constant had a reputation for being dishonest with his contract-farming clients, adding, “Everybody knows that about Randy.” Chris Barnier, the former Organic Land Management employee, recalls Baird telling him in 2008 that “Randy Constant is cheating on his organic certifications—we just don’t know how.” (Baird remembers these conversations, but also says that she never suspected Constant of fraud.)

A few years later, Baird accepted a job offer from Constant. He had a new side project: trying to set up an aquaponics facility in Trenton, half an hour north of Chillicothe, at a former popcorn factory. In an aquaponics operation, plants are nourished by waste from fish farmed alongside them: ideally, one crop supports another. Baird helped hire staff, and she promoted the project in a talk to the Trenton Rotary Club.

According to Larry Willis, a Missouri farmer who worked on the aquaponics project, Constant approached the venture with flailing extravagance. He seemed to have a surfeit of inexperienced associates on the project—including Steve Whiteside, a local pig farmer; David Buttman, Constant’s brother-in-law; and John Burton, his partner in Jericho Solutions. They apparently spent their weekends Googling “aquaponics,” emerging each Monday with new, conflicting plans. “If it wasn’t so sad, it would be comical,” Willis said.

Around 2010, Constant travelled to Colorado and toured a fish farm on the grounds of a prison in Cañon City. The owners of the business, who included an entrepreneur named Steve Abernathy, paid a monthly fee to the prison, which covered the farm’s utility bills and made available several dozen inmate employees each day. Tilapia grown on the farm was being sold in local Whole Foods stores. At the end of the visit, Constant surprised Abernathy by saying, “I want to buy it. Give me a number.”

Before long, the two men had agreed on a price. Abernathy assumed that Constant was acting for a hidden investor. “He seemed to be such a simple guy,” Abernathy told me. “He didn’t seem like the kind of guy that walked around writing checks for millions of dollars.” He added, “In reality, he was trying to launder money.”

Pam Constant, who, like her husband, attended Chillicothe High School and then the University of Missouri, had planned to go to law school. But, as she once told a local reporter, she set aside that ambition during her first, peripatetic decade of marriage, because “we rarely lived near any school of law.” After the Constants returned to their home town, Pam began teaching preschool, part time, at the United Methodist church. Several years later, she became an English teacher at Chillicothe High.

According to Randy, Pam gave him the idea of using “quixotic” in a business name. The Cañon City tilapia operation became Quixotic Farming. In 2014, the startup opened a second farm, in a former Walmart on Chillicothe’s southern edge. Quixotic’s name, Constant once told a seafood-industry trade magazine, highlighted the “tremendous adventure” he was undertaking. (Pam Constant declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Constant evidently saw fish farming as an opportunity to reproduce his achievement in grain—exploit a market willing to pay premium prices for qualities that are hard to detect at the point of sale. There’s currently no such thing as an American organic fish: a wild-caught fish is not an agricultural product, so the U.S.D.A. has no standing to judge it, and there’s resistance to certifying farmed fish. So Constant tried to position his product as unusually wholesome, and “sustainable,” in part by describing himself as an organic-industry pioneer. When Steve Whiteside, Constant’s operations manager at the Chillicothe fish farm, spoke to a local reporter, he contrasted Quixotic’s product with fish that, he said, was raised in sewerlike conditions in China.

This was a bold accusation, given that one of Constant’s ideas for Quixotic seems to have been to pass off Chinese fish as homegrown. Ty Dick, who became the chief of operations for Quixotic in Cañon City, told me that Constant once asked him, “Why don’t you go check out a couple of these places in China? You could get tilapia for pennies on the dollar. It’s way cheaper than us growing them.” Dick recalled that he protested, saying, “We can’t sell those to Whole Foods! It goes against everything we’re saying.” But Constant “was, like, ‘You think they would notice?’ ” According to Dick, Constant later returned to the theme: “All you have to do is just get those fillets in, then we put on our seasoning and branding, and boom—now it’s from America.”

Constant never pursued this. Instead, he seems to have let Quixotic function as a portal for redistributing millions of dollars flowing from his fields in Missouri and elsewhere. Quixotic paid salaries of between sixty and a hundred thousand dollars to Constant’s son, Lane; his daughter Claire; and the husband of his daughter Morgan, Eric Ely. (They all declined to be interviewed for this article.) These family members were rarely seen on site. The fish were often neglected. As one of Constant’s employees dryly put it, without proper care “fish are quite likely to die, unlike cows or sheep.”

Before Dick began working at the Cañon City fish farm, he had been a chef and a caterer. He sometimes felt unnerved to be overseeing a multimillion-dollar operation. Dick told me, “I was always calling, saying, ‘Why don’t you come to town? Let’s review some of this stuff.’ Randy was, like, ‘No, you’ve got it! You’re doing a great job! Keep going!’ ”

One inmate working at the Cañon City farm, Hector Sanchez, was especially adept and motivated. A former drug dealer born in Brooklyn, he’d been convicted of assault with a deadly weapon. Soon after Sanchez was paroled, in 2015, Constant hired him to be a manager at the Chillicothe fish farm, paying him fifty thousand dollars a year and giving him a free place to live, in a local building that he owned. “I loved that dude!” Sanchez told me. “The way he treated me—I’ve never lived that good, legally, in my life.”

Constant soon gave Sanchez a side gig. Sanchez would drive up to the former popcorn factory in Trenton, which, because of its previous incarnation, had three grain bins on site. His task was to load grain from these bins onto trucks; as he did this, trucks sometimes arrived to refill the bins. Constant never explained what was going on. “I never really asked,” Sanchez said. It’s now clear that these transfers helped Constant attach a new, organic story to non-organic grain.

It might seem unfair that Constant hired someone recently paroled only to enlist him in criminal activities. “I’m not going to say that it wasn’t fair,” Sanchez told me. “Randy never did anything intentionally to hurt anyone.” He went on, “He was in it for the money. Greed—that’s all it was. You start making money, you want more. . . . It’s an addiction, man.”

Soon after Constant met Steve Abernathy, the entrepreneur who sold him the Colorado fish farm, he asked him, “Why don’t you come to Vegas with us? This is going to be really something.” There was a clear suggestion of louche adventure. Abernathy found the invitation jarring: “It was so out of character. He was very quiet and serious most of the time. Then, ‘You want to come out and play?’ ”

Cartoon by Adam Douglas Thompson
Cartoon by Adam Douglas Thompson

Not long after Ty Dick began working for Quixotic in Cañon City, Constant called him and said, “Hey, what are you doing?” Dick replied that he was working. “Come to Vegas!” Constant said. “We’ll be there in three hours. How soon can you get there?” Dick flew to Las Vegas that day and met up with Constant and John Burton, who was now also involved with Quixotic. Constant and Burton were in a giddy mood. It was immediately clear, Dick said, “that these guys have been doing this a long time—they’ve got their spots.”

Dick was astonished by what he witnessed. Constant had led youth-mission trips for a church with firm views about the sinfulness of gambling. But he and Burton—a quiet man whose loud hobby was entering souped-up vehicles in tractor-pulling competitions—were spending without apparent restraint. Dick told me, “My limit is twenty bucks. I’m done for the night.” When Dick announced that he was ready to hang it up, Constant handed him thousands of dollars’ worth of chips. “Spend mine,” he said.

“I wasn’t starry-eyed, but I was certainly impressed,” Dick said. “And they could see that. And fun loves company.” He later came to think of that first invitation as a test: would he gossip about Vegas in Colorado? Beyond an amazed report to his wife, he did not—and he was repeatedly asked back. The men tended to stay at the Bellagio, and they had round-the-clock drivers. Constant would buy tickets to M.M.A. fights and rodeos, and he’d book all the surrounding seats—a block of “maybe seventy-five,” Dick said. (He assured me that sitting in isolation was more fun than it sounds.) He added, “There was a lot of money spent on women.” In the evenings, Constant and Burton were regularly joined by the same companions, whom the group referred to as “the Vegas girlfriends.” Dick said that on one of his first trips there were “escorts waiting for me up in my suite.” He said that he declined their offers: “I was slightly scared of repercussions from the wife. But it’s more that it’s just not my thing.” Abernathy told me that Constant appeared to be trying to make up for lost time. “He’s a small-town guy,” he said. “He never really got out and did anything.” (John Burton could not be reached for comment.)

Dave Chapman, a Vermont farmer who, in 2018, founded a group called the Real Organic Project, to protest what he and others see as the dilution of principles at the National Organic Program, recently offered me this reading of Constant’s behavior: “He got all this unearned money, and it just kind of destroyed him. It’s ‘Faust’! It’s ‘Randy, don’t do it. Don’t trade your soul!’ ”

It’s unusual for a farm to lose an organic certification. If a certifier sees evidence of bad practices, the consequences come slowly. The farmer is nudged to reform, and, if then still found noncompliant, may be invited to a mediation. Only after those efforts fail is a revocation proposed. Actual suspension can take another year.

The National Organic Program accepts complaints from the public, and from interested parties. But, as Sam Welsch, the founder of OneCert, a long-established certification company, told me, “it seems like when you report things, they’re looking for reasons not to have to investigate.” As Lynn Clarkson, of Clarkson Grain, sees it, the system was set up in such a way that “as long as someone is covered with paper documentation you don’t go after them.” He argued that, across the industry, there’s a fear of breaking something fragile. “It’s: Do I stand up and talk about the fraud that’s happening? Is that going to do more good or more harm? Am I going to kill the movement? Am I going to destroy the market that I’m trying to perfect?”

The N.O.P. never penalized Constant for noncompliance. And in 2018, when the Department of Justice finally indicted Constant for his crimes, the announcement didn’t prompt those who had helped to bring his grain to market—certifiers, grain buyers, food manufacturers, retailers—to inform organic consumers about his deceit. Though the government’s case went back only as far as 2010, my conversations with grain dealers and others suggest that Constant’s fraud had probably begun by 2001. Any American who regularly bought supermarket organic products while Constant pursued his scheme likely bought mislabelled goods, but the organic industry—however alarmed its internal discussions—seemed disposed to leave the public in the dark. This impulse has survived: the N.O.P. declined to discuss any aspect of Constant’s career for this article.

Around the time that The Organic & Non-GMO Report wrote about Jericho Solutions, in 2007, Glen Borgerding and Duane Bushman both told their certifiers that they were uneasy about Constant’s activities; Borgerding suggested that Q.A.I. subject Constant to an unannounced inspection. Despite these concerns about Constant, there is little evidence that they resulted in increased regulatory scrutiny of his grain supply.

In 2012, Constant sold a truck of soybeans—grown by Tom and James Brennan, in Nebraska, and described as organic—to a company inspected by Sam Welsch’s OneCert. That load tested as one hundred per cent G.M.O. When Welsch recalled this episode to me, he withheld his client’s name, but I later learned that it was Scoular, a Nebraska-based grain company with more than four billion dollars in annual revenue. Scoular had once employed Constant as a salesman. Welsch submitted a complaint to the N.O.P. on Scoular’s behalf. He told me that the N.O.P. made one call to Scoular; after that, there was no further response. He has retained e-mails showing that, for the next six years, he pressed agency officials—including Miles McEvoy, who ran the N.O.P. between 2009 and 2017, and Matthew Michael, then the director of the office’s Compliance and Enforcement Division.

In 2014, the N.O.P. received another complaint about Constant, from the established grain trader. The trader told me that, by that year, he had come to view Constant with skepticism: “We all go to the same trade shows and go out for beers—we’re all in friendly competition. And then this guy that no one has ever talked to is selling all this grain?” The supply of organic corn was then “a little tight,” and it was selling for more than four hundred dollars a ton. When the trader talked to a regular customer in Nebraska, the customer said, “Oh, I just bought a bunch of corn at three-seventy-five.” The trader was dying to know its source but didn’t ask; to do so would look unprofessional. His customer then said, “If you guys need any, I’d sell you a car or two.” The trader ordered two railcars. Remembering this, he laughed, and said, “We literally did this just so we could see who the hell was selling the corn this cheap.” The name on the paperwork, he added, was “the name that we suspected.”

No chemical analysis could have settled the question of whether that corn was properly described as organic. Yet Constant, at a time of corn scarcity, was selling corn in great bulk, at prices way under market. (The trader believes in a fair market, but he is not a martyr: the dubious Constant railcars he bought that day were certified organic, and he sold them on as such.)

In the trader’s complaint to the N.O.P., he wrote, “I strongly feel that there is a major fraud occurring in the Organic Grain industry. Please do not take this lightly.” He described—astutely—what he suspected was happening: Constant was buying non-organic grain, attaching organic certifications to it, and selling it through Jericho Solutions, which provided another “layer to protect” him. A few weeks later, Matthew Michael, the N.O.P. compliance official, e-mailed the trader: “Our investigation did not find any apparent violations of U.S.D.A. organic regulations. The investigation is hereby closed.” The trader lost his mind. He told me, “I call this Michael guy and left him a fucking voice mail, saying, ‘My next call’s to the newspapers! This is bullshit. How can you guys not look into this?’ ” (Michael, who remains a U.S.D.A. official, did not respond to a request for comment.)

McEvoy, the top N.O.P. official at the time, told me that, during this era, the agency was contending with limited resources and a backlog of complaints—and he spoke of current N.O.P. proposals to counter fraud—but he could not explain Michael’s e-mail. In McEvoy’s memory, there was at least one other complaint about Constant around this time, connected to a failed G.M.O. test in Pennsylvania. It was perhaps that infraction, and not the trader’s yelling, that eventually led to government action.

A few months after the trader received Michael’s dismissive e-mail, he got a call from Brad Meyer, of the U.S.D.A.’s Office of Inspector General, which was now overseeing a criminal inquiry into the matter. Meyer, who is in his forties, is a former military-police officer. He has a firm handshake. Because he and his colleagues handle fraud cases across the U.S.D.A., he had no particular expertise in organic agriculture at the time. Meyer asked the trader how to test corn to determine whether it’s organic.

“Well, you can’t really do that,” the trader said.

What?” Meyer said.

In the fall of 2015, more than a year into the criminal investigation—which came to include surveillance of the kind of grain-switching activities sometimes undertaken by Hector Sanchez—Q.A.I. suspended its certification of Organic Land Management. Undeterred, Constant secured a new certification, under his own name, from mosa, a Wisconsin outfit. (Steve Walker, mosa’s accreditation manager, told me that Constant never mentioned the Q.A.I. suspension.)

That year, Constant had planted a large crop of organic soybeans on the grounds of a federal prison in Forrest City, Arkansas, after agreeing to share the profits from the crop, fifty-fifty, with the prison. A man that he had hired to help run the operation, Dave Block, soon felt confused about his mandate. “He didn’t really push the organics so much,” Block told me. Constant supplied non-organic seeds, and then “put on whatever fertilizer he wanted.”

To run a fraudulent organic farm inside a federal prison suggests an unusual appetite for risk. Block has sometimes wondered if Constant thought of his work inside prisons as insurance against a possible legal reckoning. Block recalled that Constant had plans—never realized—to set up an organic operation at the prison at Leavenworth, just north of Kansas City, which is where a Chillicothe man convicted of nonviolent federal crimes would likely serve his sentence.

Steve Smith, an inmate-labor specialist who helped arrange the Arkansas deal, today regards Constant’s infractions with a degree of indulgence: he laughed when recalling to me the day he heard that Constant had apparently reneged on the agreement to share profits. “I really liked the guy,” Smith said. “He seemed like a really good Christian. Randy was a good, good person.”

In 2016, when the entire organic-corn output of Missouri and Nebraska was about 2.4 million bushels, Constant sold 1.8 million bushels of supposedly organic corn. His corn output that year represented about seven per cent of the national organic crop. His soybean sales represented eight per cent.

John Heinecke told me that he had probably sold Constant more than half of that grain. Constant’s needs had become seemingly limitless, and his buying habits had developed a frenzied air, which Heinecke now supposes was connected to a weakness for gambling: “He wanted so many damn beans. He never had a stopping point.” Heinecke said that he would sometimes haul grain to Chillicothe and “leave it out by the fish farm.” At other times, trucks sent by Tom Brennan, the Vietnam vet, and his son would pick up grain from Heinecke and haul it back to Nebraska.

Heinecke told me that Constant never paid him in full. Over lunch, at the Applebee’s in Chillicothe, he’d plead with him to settle up. “If he owed three hundred and eighty, he’d send me three hundred,” Heinecke said. “Enough that you could survive and keep operating.”

In May, 2017, nearly three years after Brad Meyer and his colleagues had begun the criminal investigation, Constant was included in a “10 Successful Farmers” feature in Successful Farming magazine. That month, he advised Heinecke to get a defense attorney. Heinecke recalls asking him, “What the hell did you do?” The next day, according to Heinecke, Meyer and another agent served a subpoena at his house. That June, agents executed a search warrant at Constant’s home on Oaklawn Drive. Around this time, Constant asked Hector Sanchez to give up the rent-free place in Chillicothe. As Sanchez recalled it, “He said, ‘Shit’s happening right now. I need to figure some things out.’ ”

Constant and his lawyer began negotiating with the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Northern District of Iowa, which had amassed considerable evidence about the fraud. Constant shut down Quixotic, and some of its assets appear to have been transferred to a new organization, the Innovative Aquaculture Alliance, which used his son’s home as its registered address. The following spring, the Walmart that had been turned into a fish farm was demolished.

“It’s now a working fireplace.”
“It’s now a working fireplace.”

This past May, Steve Whiteside, the pig farmer, was sentenced in a Kansas City courtroom for his part in Constant’s scheme. A stocky, tanned man in his late fifties, he wore a gray sports coat and slacks; half-moon reading glasses rested on the tip of his nose. His wife, Mary Pat, a retired teacher, sat behind him, on the public benches.

He was the last of six men to be sentenced in crimes related to Constant’s deceptions. Whiteside had admitted to signing a document about land use that he knew was false. In the courtroom, Jacob Schunk, an Assistant U.S. Attorney from Cedar Rapids, pressed for a prison sentence. Misrepresenting a product as organic should not be considered a crime with no victims, Schunk said: harm had been done not only to consumers—who paid for something that they didn’t get—but also to honest organic farmers who had been forced to compete against cheats. Schunk ended in a beseeching pose, arms aloft. More virtuous farmers “may not be in the courtroom,” he said. “But they’re going to figure out whether it matters to do the right thing.”

Whiteside received three years of probation, and was fined forty-five thousand dollars. Before his sentencing, he spoke to the court about work he did with Constant that did not involve fraudulent grain. “I’ve developed many tilapia facilities . . . highly sustainable tilapia,” he said, adding, “My wife and I have worked thirty-six years to accumulate the financial assets that we have.” (These include a half-million-dollar lake house, near Heinecke’s.) Whiteside’s voice broke. “I want you to know the circumstances around the connection to Randy,” he said. “I trusted him. Our wives taught English together. We became good friends, just as hundreds of other people in our community had done so as well. I was shocked when I heard of his crimes.” When he sat down, he was weeping.

Constant and four other men had already pleaded guilty in related cases. The scheme, prosecutors declared, had led to more than a hundred and forty-two million dollars in sales of fake organic grain between 2010 and 2017. There were no trials, and the scheme’s workings were sketched only in outline. Constant, along with Tom and James Brennan, and Mike Potter, their Nebraska neighbor, pleaded guilty to wire fraud. John Burton pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Constant made his plea in December, 2018. Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Morfitt, who worked on the case with Jacob Schunk, told me that Constant “was a naturally gregarious person,” and “came across as very comfortable and relaxed” in court. He was released ahead of his sentencing. His house was now on the market.

Hector Sanchez had taken a job in Iowa. He had been told not to have any contact with Constant, and for a long while he complied. But, in the spring of 2019, Sanchez was in Chillicothe, and he drove over to Oaklawn Drive. Constant came out to the sidewalk to talk. He was packing up. Sanchez recalled, “He’s leaving his beautiful, humongous, gorgeous house that he raised his kids in.” Constant’s sentencing hearing was scheduled for a few months later, in August. “He was scared shitless,” Sanchez said.

On August 16, 2019, Constant’s thirty-ninth wedding anniversary, he appeared in court a second time. In advance of his sentencing, he had signed a statement that included an acknowledgment of his Vegas expenditures. (Schunk told me, “It’s relevant how you’re spending the money that you’re stealing.”) The statement, which Constant didn’t read in court, noted, “During the course of my travel to Las Vegas, I developed sexual relationships with three women for whom I provided support and for whom I paid some expenses.” It went on, “I transferred over $2,000,000 to entities related to these women. . . . I also shared a bank account with one of these women from which, over a period of more than one year, approximately $110,000 was used to pay for her car payments and insurance, plastic surgery in the form of breast augmentation, travel to Spain, and other bills and expenses.”

That afternoon, Mark Weinhardt, Constant’s attorney, mentioned his client’s charitable activities in Chillicothe. He also reminded the court that organic certification technically applies to land, not to any particular crop. “All that happened,” he argued, was that “some additional carloads were claimed to have come from the land that was in fact certified.” The scheme grew, he said, from the realization of “how simple this was.” John Heinecke—who was once told by one of his lawyers that Constant had tried to paint him as the scheme’s mastermind—was in the court’s public seating that day.

Before Constant was sentenced, he gave some spoken remarks, with a composure that detractors might describe as unctuous. “I have contributions I can make to enhance the lives of others,” he said. “I strive to be a learner and a helper. In prison, I’ll have opportunities in programs where I can volunteer my talents to help other inmates.” He referred to his prison businesses: “My motivation was to provide the opportunity to build new skill sets and work ethics for those involved. Ironically, I now will be an inmate myself.”

The presiding judge, C. J. Williams, proposed that Constant was like the organic grain he sold: “not what is advertised.” Williams sentenced him to ten years and two months. Constant was released ahead of the start of his prison term.

Heinecke, recalling Constant’s appearance in court, said, “He was about in tears when he read his big statement about all the good things he’s done! I thought, You’re a dumbass if you think a judge is going to believe all that.”

The anger that Heinecke still directs toward Constant may be partly tactical, in order to distance himself from the scheme. And Heinecke never complained to me that he had been led astray. Rather, his central grievance was that Constant had left him in debt. By the end of Constant’s final, frantic year of grain sales, he owed Heinecke more than two and a half million dollars. In 2017, Heinecke sued Constant. “I knew if I didn’t file for my damn money it would make me look more guilty than ever,” he told me. He never got his money. Heinecke is now in a third bankruptcy restructuring. “It’s broken me,” he said.

Heinecke hasn’t been accused of any crimes. As we stood on the driveway of his lake house, he recalled a conversation with his lawyer: “He said, ‘They think you got too much money for your corn and beans!’ He said, ‘I guarantee you, we’ll get a bunch of old farm people up there in Iowa on the jury—I’ll get you off. Ain’t none of them going to say you got too much! You never get too much!’ ”

A week before Constant’s hearing, Sanchez was arrested for larceny. He was later convicted and imprisoned, and he has since been released.

When I spoke to Sanchez, he was living in a motel in a small town in Iowa, and had just finished a shift at a Hy-Vee grocery store. He said that there was nothing shameful in Constant’s core crime: “Bitch, if you can make a hundred and forty-two million!” But, as Sanchez saw it, Constant had been humiliated by the Vegas confession. The details of his hidden life “threw a dirty mask on his face.”

Clarence Mock, the defense lawyer for Mike Potter, said of Constant, “He seemed like a genteel kind of guy. But a lot of people that are involved in major frauds—what do they say about sociopaths? You want to have a beer with them. Very charming.” He recalled Constant’s behavior on the day of his sentencing. “He was just sort of acting like he was going to take it,” Mock recalled. “He didn’t seem to be particularly anxious or strident or combative. He was calm.”

The Constants had moved into half of a two-family bungalow, a block and a half from where Randy had lived as a baby. On August 19, 2019, the Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune published a story that acknowledged his crimes—its only such story. Constant, once the town hero, was described as “formerly of Chillicothe.” That same day, he committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning, in a car parked in his garage.

Tom Brennan, the Vietnam vet, was released from prison in December 2019, at the age of seventy-two. He died in a car accident several months later

All Rights Reserved for Ian Parker 

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