It’s been just under two years since Merle Northrup was convicted of stealing more than $400,000 worth of grain from a Mount Vernon farming family.
After a year and a half in prison and about five months on parole, Northrup, 50, says he’s living from one two-week paycheck advance to another and expects to spend the rest of his life repaying restitution for a crime he told The Daily Republic he didn’t commit.
“Basically, they just ripped my life right away from me and threw me behind bars because of something I did not do,” Northrup said. “And I don’t want to plead guilty to something I didn’t do, so why should I have to be punished for it?”
Northrup was first charged in July 2016 when David and Scott Estabrook, a father and son who farm together north of Mount Vernon, reported to the Davison County Sheriff’s Office that increasingly large amounts of grain had gone missing over an approximately five-year period as Northrup sold some loads of grain to Poet and Cenex Harvest States in the Estabrooks’ name and some in his own.
When he arrived home one day in summer 2016 and found a Davison County Sheriff’s Office vehicle in his driveway, he was brought to Mitchell for questioning and said the evidence presented to him was a stack of paperwork showing the grain sales he had made in his name.
Northrup said he had in fact sold the grain in question in his own name, but that a sharecropping agreement with the Estabrooks authorized him to sell that grain and that he could have proven those sales weren’t theft if he had gone to trial.
Scott Estabrook told The Daily Republic in August 2016 that the theft had set him back about 10 years and that he hadn’t known Northrup was taking anything until a Poet employee called him one day and asked what he wanted to be done with his and Northrup’s grain. Northrup, however, said the amount of grain he was accused of taking couldn’t be written off as being within the margin of error for any farm.
“If you talk to any farmer around, there’s no way 30,000 bushels in one year is marginal error,” he said.
Northrup said the Estabrooks kept the original copy of the written sharecropping agreements, but that while his case was still scheduled to go to trial, he was anonymously mailed copies of contracts between him and the Estabrooks that a handwriting expert later found to include falsified signatures.
He also said he asked his attorneys — he was originally represented by Donna Bucher, who became a magistrate judge before his case was concluded, then by Theresa Maule Rossow, who is now the state’s attorney in Brule County — to try to get copies of the Estabrooks’ crop insurance to support his claims, but was told that request was denied.
“With the information I gave them, I was still having to do all the legwork if I wanted it. I asked for his crop insurance reports. I asked for his crop insurance company so I could talk to them or we could talk to them and get the paperwork and find out everything on that. We were denied all of that,” Northrup said. “And as much as I kept pushing on it, trying to get it, the attorney would not get it. That was one of the key (pieces of) evidence that we needed to use to be able to help out with trying to justify the case.”
On an aggravated grand theft charge, Northrup pleaded no contest, a plea that is treated similarly to a guilty plea by a court in that both result in sentencing for the charge without prosecutors having to prove guilt at trial, but a no contest plea doesn’t constitute an admission of guilt.
Northrup said when Maule Rossow told him a no contest plea agreement had been reached by the state, he felt he didn’t have the option of refusing the agreement and essentially thought a no contest plea was similar to a not guilty plea and would give him more time to try to prove his innocence.
“I never really quite understood the terminology that they were looking at compared to what I was looking at if I pled no contest,” Northrup said. “(I thought), if I plead no contest to something, it means that I know nothing about it or I’m not wanting to go this far right now. I want to try to back up and try to figure it out and get it to where I get a little more time to get things in order again.”
Instead, Northrup said he was shocked when his April 2018 court appearance shifted into a sentencing hearing.
“I turned around and the judge basically almost came out of his bench after me, saying that ‘since you have no remorse for what you’ve done and you’re not sorry for what you’ve done, I’m sentencing you to 15 years in the state penitentiary.’ My heart just sank right there.”
Northrup was sentenced to 15 years in prison with 10 years suspended. An additional year was suspended from his sentence last May, and he was released on parole Oct. 25.
While in prison, Northrup said he tried to appeal his conviction but got pushback from Maule Rossow, who he said argued that it didn’t make sense to appeal because he had been given a light sentence compared to the 15-year maximum permitted by law.
“I wanted to appeal it because it’s my life that just got thrown behind bars, and I don’t even have a choice in this matter,” he said.
Northrup said he got through his time in prison by turning to the Bible and that he maintained his innocence to prison staff and other inmates.
“Since I got sentenced and thrown behind bars anyway, I figured there’s no sense in hiding any of it, and I gave everybody the truth. And I’m just going to keep telling the truth,” he said.
Northrup said despite attempting everything he could think of, including asking for a more significant sentence reduction than the one he was given last year, he didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to his father, who died in June 2018.
He said he’s reached out to entities including those that handle crop insurance and wetlands at the federal level and Gov. Kristi Noem’s Office. He’s been told that any action moving forward would require him to hire an attorney, which he said he can’t afford.
“Being in prison, I tell you, it’s difficult. Nobody wants to listen to you, because they think, ‘Oh, you’re just trying to get out,’” Northrup said. “I’m scared to talk to anybody anymore, because all I keep getting is, pass the buck, pass the buck. ‘You need to call here, you need to call there. We can’t do it for you; you’ve got to do it.’”
Once moved to minimum security, Northrup started doing manual labor on work release and has continued working for the same employer while on parole, now driving a truck. He said his paychecks were sent directly to the prison and he never saw them, with 90 percent of the money going to restitution and 5 percent allocated to child support before the remaining 5 percent was given to him.
“It should have been going the other way around: child support should’ve been taken care of first, then restitution,” Northrup said. “I got out with a high debt of restitution plus a high debt of child support that I’m trying to render back into straits.”
Prior to sentencing, Northrup owned a farm house and some acreage, all of which has been sold. He lived with his daughter after his release from prison and is now living on his own in Mount Vernon.
As of last week, Northrup said, he still owes about $1,800 in child support and $405,000 in restitution to the Estabrooks. He said it’s been hard to get much work in part because of his conviction and in part because he was released in the fall, when less work is available.
Northrup said he's appreciative of the way Department of Corrections employees have treated him since he began parole.
"They're here to help me. They're not pushing against me in any way," he said.
Each month, Northrup brings a money order to his parole officer to be put toward restitution. He said he’s currently able to pay about $50 a week. It would take him more than 155 years to repay restitution entirely at that rate.
“It’s been hectic trying to get back into society; trying to reestablish where I got pulled away from,” he said.