The Gazette (Cedar Rapids-Iowa City)
December 27, 1998
Author: Rick Smith; Gazette staff writer
CASTALIA – Cross the Turkey River from the south and drive The Great River Road east, and you come to Granite Road and to Jeff and Renee Hanken’s place in Iowa’s dairy country. The red barns, the white house and the blue silo seem the exact mix of colors and Americana for radio legend Paul Harvey to have mentioned the Fayette County farm in his national radio newscast.
Harvey’s interest, though, lies in the oddity here: Family farmers aren’t supposed to rob banks. And when one does, as Jeff Hanken did twice in July, maybe the tale is a cautionary one. Maybe it says as much about farming in America as it does about the farmer.
On a shelf in the Hanken kitchen, Renee Hanken, 40, keeps a pile of cards – 75 and growing – that have arrived since her husband’s arrest in September for robbing a bank in Waverly and another in Clermont.
The messages – from friends, neighbors, church members and strangers – would differ little if the coming prison term was a funeral. “It’s not like Jeff and I ever wanted a lot,” Renee says. “We never needed a $30,000 pickup. A nice used one we were happy with. …
“That’s why we have so many people sticking up for us. They know we work hard.”
Demands of farming
Jeff Hanken’s life experience hints that the reasons for his leap into crime, at age 41, are not so easily explained. His experience, for instance, taught him that one stereotype of the Iowa farm – the one that says that every farming father cares that the family farm survives him – is not always true.
In fact, a father can care little about a child succeeding him, can plan poorly for the transition and so leave a son like Hanken nearly doomed by debt in the trying. “That debt can be a tremendous financial hardship,” says Lee Kilmer, a professor of animal science at Iowa State University. “The pressure can literally cause people to come unglued.”
And when the glue goes, farmers aren’t apt to rush to a therapist’s office or turn to prescription antidepressants.
“Farmers tend to be independent types who think they ought to be able to handle things on their own,” says Madge Alberts of the University of Minnesota Extension Service and co-author of a report on stress on the dairy farm.
This doesn’t appear a good time to generate sympathy for a dairy farmer like Hanken. Hog farmers, reeling from record-low hog prices, are the ones in crisis. The price paid to dairy farmers for milk today is at an all-time high. But don’t be misled, Alberts says.
“The economic consequences that have occurred over time for dairy farmers aren’t going to be solved by a short time of high prices,” she says.
In fact, changes and pressures in dairying have been enormous for family farmers in recent years as prices for milk, not stabilized by federal price supports since the mid-1980s, have peaked and dropped with a volatility not seen in recent times.
“It is a very demanding enterprise, 365 days a year, with margins getting thinner,” says Paul Brown, Iowa State University Extension Service area education manager and dairy management specialist. As a result, many dairy farmers have been forced to get bigger and modernize or get out.
The increasing herd size has had a great impact on the quality of life of dairy families, Brown says. “I think what has happened is that dairy farms have grown to the point where a single family entity cannot handle all the labor demands as they once could,” he says.
Autistic daughter adds to burden
Most nights the last two years, Jeff Hanken slept on a rug on the kitchen floor, as if to keep the wolves at the door at bay. His intent, though, was to make sure his autistic, 10-year-old daughter, Megan, wouldn’t get out while the family slept. Autism, a neurological disorder with varying symptoms, has left Megan unable to speak and difficult to reach. The affliction seems to have forced her to see the world as a cage from which to escape. She can vanish in a second.
During a trip to University Hospitals in Iowa City, for instance, Megan ended up on the hospital roof. On a family trip to a zoo in Minnesota, she was found walking down the center of a four-lane highway.
Many a winter night, the Hankens have found their wandering daughter by listening for footsteps in the snow. Neither parent, of course, is blaming two bank robberies on an autistic child.
But the Hankens’ white living-room walls – hardly an inch is not covered in words and phrases that Megan has seen on TV and scrawled on the walls – is a continuing testament to how difficult she has been to control.
In fact, Megan’s disorder has caught the notice of Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Teig, who is prosecuting Hanken. Teig has mentioned in court that he has an autistic son.
In September, a sympathetic Teig agreed to an arrangement that let Hanken remain free after his arrest to get his affairs on the farm in order pending the outcome of his case. Accused bank robbers usually stay in jail.
The sense has been that Hanken acted out of desperation when he donned a fake beard in one instance and sunglasses and cap in another to rob the banks. He seemed to be a farmer trying to feed his family and keep a farm afloat.
Yet, Hanken twice since September has tested that picture by being rearrested. The first time, he was rereleased when the judge learned that Hanken was slow to get home after his court appearance because he walked from Cedar Rapids to Waterloo to get his car – about 65 miles. The walk took a day and a half.
Hanken explains that a sheriff’s deputy told him he couldn’t hitchhike. So he didn’t. Besides, he says, he wasn’t in a rush to face his wife. He’d confessed to her about one robbery but not the other. In late October, Hanken was rearrested again for leaving the farm to take his family on a day trip to a dairy exposition in Madison, Wis.
A somber Magistrate Judge John Jarvey left Hanken in jail. “I will forever in your family be the guy who put you in jail for taking your kids on vacation,” Jarvey told Hanken in court.
Pressures from all sides
Hanken’s crimes and his arrest and confession in early September marked an end to a yearlong decline for the 41-year-old who had farmed the family place since he was a teen-ager. It’s hard to know when a personal slide begins, how it picks up speed or which factor plays on a person hardest and longest.
Megan and her autism may not have mattered much at all. For Hanken, there was a large debt he amassed at his father’s death in 1989, when he had to buy out his four siblings to continue farming. Also, there was general pressure in the dairy industry in the 1990s for farmers to get bigger or to get out.
Then there was the fire in March 1996 – caused by a malfunctioning electrical box, the state fire marshal found – that destroyed the dairy barn and killed most of the Hanken dairy herd. Getting back on his feet took a year at a time when milk prices were peaking.
“I should have called it quits then,” Hanken says now. “It would have been the right thing to do, looking back. I should have at least taken a break.”
But milk at the time was bringing a good price, and, with insurance money, Hanken says it was his chance to build a modern dairy operation. He had never wanted to do anything but run a dairy farm.
Signs that pressure was getting the best of Hanken appeared as early as the summer of 1997, his wife says.
He was farming her grandmother’s 100 acres near Waukon and his own 153 tillable acres and milking a lot of cows. By then, milk prices had dropped and financial problems began to mount.
“I think he was just psychologically burned out,” Renee says. “He wasn’t able to get the field work done or keep up with the overall care of everything.”
In March 1998, a bulging neck muscle sent Hanken to the local medical clinic where a doctor said stress was to blame. The doctor prescribed the popular antidepressant Zoloft, though Jeff opted not to stay on it.
Pressure and resentment were building.
The bank where Hanken had done business for years said it would not lend him operating capital to put in a corn crop. He planted without fertilizer or chemicals. By early summer, he ran an ad in The Gazette seeking an investor willing to put money in his dairy operation. No one answered. Hanken says most of the biweekly check for his milk was going to the bank, and he wasn’t able to keep up with other bills. A friend he borrowed money from needed it back.
A story in the newspaper about a surge in bank robberies got Hanken thinking of a way out. One good haul would give him enough to quiet those he owed. Maybe he wouldn’t have to give up his cows and equipment, as the bank was now threatening.
It was a tense time, Renee says. The family had eaten all the food in the cupboards. “I told Jeff, ‘I don’t even know you anymore,’ ” she says. ” ‘I can’t even talk to you.’ “He really wasn’t there anymore. Things needed to be done, and he couldn’t get them done. He’d be tired, lying on the floor.”
Renee says she was pleased when her husband announced that he was going to visit an old college buddy in central Iowa on July 2 to see about a loan. That’s the day Jeff robbed the bank in Waverly, which he says was as easy as walking into a room. But the $9,152 was only a third of what he thought he’d get.
When he returned home, he had money to pay some bills and buy groceries. Renee says she splurged. She spent $90.
“I think he saw that I was happy,” Renee says. “It takes some pressure off you. You can pay some bills.” She had no idea he had robbed a bank. A week later, he robbed one in Clermont, six miles from home, taking $27,271. “I felt I didn’t want to let my wife down,” Hanken says.
But at the Clermont bank, he was sure a customer recognized his voice behind his disguise. He figured he would be arrested. “It was no fun at all. I was shaking every day (after that),” he says. His undoing came when a neighbor spotted a truck that matched a getaway truck on property Jeff was farming. Hanken had stolen the truck in Waukon a few weeks before.
In fact, rumors were spreading in the rural neighborhood that Jeff was the Clermont bank robber. An outraged Renee fired off a letter to the editor at the Elgin Echo newspaper, bashing the rumor mill. By Sept. 3, at her husband’s arrest, she was eating her words.
A good life crumbles
Looking back, Jeff says the debt he amassed in 1989 – when his dad died and he bought out his four siblings – left him with a financial burden that his dairy operation had difficulty meeting.
His debt load seemed bearable when the milk price was high; sometimes the family’s biweekly milk check was $5,000. At one point, times were flush enough for the Hankens to hire an employee to help with milking. That allowed the last family vacation, a four-day car trip to South Dakota in 1990.
At the Hanken place today, the dairy barn stands empty. The family has sold the 115 cows, 70 of which the family was milking at the end, and another 40 or so calves. The money has gone to pay bank debt. Remaining are Jeff’s dairy blue ribbons and his Outstanding Young Farmer plaque – a hope that dairying may one day return here.
Hanken, reserved and friendly, is embarrassed as he tries to explain from the Linn County Jail how it has come to this. Part of Renee, herself a product of northeast Iowa and a wife and mother who shared in the milking and manure shoveling, isn’t sure. “How come he had to crumble?” she asks.
Hanken is headed to federal prison when he is sentenced in U.S. District Court in Cedar Rapids in early January. His prison term is expected to last at least 47 months. Renee, back in the work force as an office employee, will stay on the farm with her children.
Three of the Hanken children, ages 14, 13 and 7, get support at school, Renee says. “It is hard to accept the generosity that people have shown, but maybe someday, I will be there to help that person in their time of need.” And then there’s Megan, who had tested the emotional strength of two parents. Now with one parent in jail, she’s been placed in a facility for disabled youths.
“She has been Jeff’s ‘little girl,”‘ Renee says. “And he said as long as he’s alive, he was never going to put her in a home.” Renee sees the fact that the home had an opening as “a blessing from God,” given the usual two-year waiting list. “I feel she is safe and can be watched full time.” Renee says if she could snap her fingers and have a wish, she wouldn’t want millions of dollars and a house on some beach. “I’d like 100 top-producing milk cows and a little money in the bank,” she says. And she’d want her husband, with his burly forearms and strong back, out of jail. To be a family again.
“We always had the same goals,” Renee says. “I told Jeff when we got married that all I wanted was a normal life.
“A normal life is you get up in the morning, do chores. You have a regular routine.”