Nobody would have suspected that the affable Tennessee tractor salesman who was raised among them, tended their lawns in high school, and prayed beside them at Sunday services was scamming them by the millions. Indeed, that’s probably what made the man’s investment scheme so successful, investigators say.
Jeffery Gentry, 40, pleaded guilty in federal court last August to charges related to his $43 million scheme that bilked investors—including friends, family, neighbors, and fellow parishioners—out of more than $10 million. Gentry, who owned and operated Gentry Brothers Tractor Supply and Gentry Auto in the Middle Tennessee town of Sparta, was sentenced on May 14 in U.S. District Court in Nashville to three years in prison. He was also ordered to pay $10.4 million in restitution to his victims.
Gentry’s scam was a textbook Ponzi scheme that promised investors high guaranteed rates of return on investments. He told investors the funds would finance the purchase of mowers and farm equipment to satisfy lucrative state contracts. In return, investors could expect monthly proceeds as high as 10 percent, thanks in part to rebates from equipment manufacturers for cash purchases, according to investigators. But it was all a lie, sustained in large part by investors’ faith that a lifelong neighbor and friend would never purposely do them wrong.
“He kind of preyed on that aspect of it,” said Jeff Guth, chief of the Sparta Police Department in White County, a close-knit rural community of 26,000 residents where the median household income is about $36,000. “Most of these people were friends of his. A lot of them went to church with him. They wouldn’t believe that someone close to them like that would be doing that.”
Guth learned of the scheme a few days before Christmas in 2016, when the police station lobby filled up with distraught investors fearing they had been duped. Gentry’s tractor store—an informal gathering spot where many of the investment transactions occurred—had shut down without explanation, suddenly casting doubt on their guaranteed returns. At the police station, former farmers and other retirees waved handwritten statements revealing their six-figure outlays, much of it from savings and retirement accounts. Suspecting there would be still more victims, Guth called the FBI in nearby Cookeville—a satellite office of the Bureau’s Memphis Division—for support.