If she’s guilty, she’d be the true definition of a bottom feeder.

Woman charged with stealing from GoFundMe account set up for missing boaters
By Becky Jacobs, Forum News Service on Feb 9, 2016 at 9:56 p.m.

BAUDETTE, Minn. — A Baudette woman who claims she set up a GoFundMe account to help the families of three men who went missing on Lake of the Woods stole funds from the account, according to law enforcement.

Retina Rayellen LaValla, 28, was charged Tuesday with two counts of theft after the Lake of the Woods Sheriff’s Department said she used some of the donated money to pay for various bills and groceries.

LaValla was brought into custody Tuesday.

The Sheriff’s Department began investigating LaValla after Carol Derosky, the mother of a boater who is still missing, reported “a possible theft from the GoFundMe account” on Jan. 11.

On Oct. 3, three boaters from Baudette were reported missing after their boat was found capsized on the northeast corner of Flag Island, which is just south of the Canadian border on Lake of the Woods.

LaValla set up a GoFundMe account in the aftermath of the boating accident to raise money from the families of the missing boaters — the bodies of Justin Kelly Haugtvedt, 22, and Cody Joseph Ostendorf, 24, were found about a week after they were reported missing, and Derosky’s son, Keith Ayers, 28, is still missing.

In three months, almost 400 people donated more than $27,000 to the page for the missing boaters. Each family was supposed to receive approximately $8,500 after GoFundMe deducted 5 percent of the donations.

In addition to the GoFundMe account, which was still active as of Tuesday night but was no longer accepting donations, the families were supposed to receive money from a fishing pole benefit that raised more than $400.

LaValla “made numerous excuses why the rest of the money was not dispersed yet,” according to a criminal complaint. And when the funds hadn’t arrived by Christmas, Derosky contacted authorities.

LaValla faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in jail and $40,000 fine on the charges.

She did not return messages on Tuesday.

Starting the investigation

The complaint details how an investigator visited LaValla at her place of employment on Jan. 11, and LaValla told the investigator “she had every cent accounted for and had all of the paperwork at her house.”

The next day, LaValla brought the investigator a GoFundMe/WePay donation statement, Facebook messages pertaining to the payments, a handwritten sheet of paper showing payments to the three families and the families’ addresses, copies of checks to the boaters’ families, an excel spreadsheet of who donated money and how much, and three cashier’s checks from Border State Bank, according to the complaint.

LaValla told investigators she did not want to mail the checks herself “in case they were lost in the mail again and would continue to be accused of stealing,” so she gave the checks to the investigator “so she could wash her hands from all of it,” according to the complaint.

The investigator sent the three checks to the families in the mail, and those checks were confirmed a few days later. Both LaValla and the families agree the benefiting parties have been paid.

Searching the bank account

Through a search warrant, investigators said they accessed LaValla’s account at Border State Bank and discovered she opened a personal checking account for which she was the only authorized signer.

On the same day the cashier’s checks were issued, LaValla made a cash deposit of more than $6,000, and there were no checks issued in December to the three families that LaValla claimed were lost in transit, investigators said in the complaint.

Besides finding multiple unaccounted-for cash withdrawals from the account in the investigation, investigators noted that on the same day two of the families were issued checks of more than $7,000 from last October, a third check in the same amount was made out to “cash.”

On Jan. 28, an investigator met with LaValla for the second time at the Sheriff’s Department, and LaValla began by denying any mishandling or stealing.

LaValla said “all of the families got every single penny of the donated money and asked why there is still an issue,” according to the complaint.

The investigator told her about what was found in her bank account, and LaValla said in the complaint “she had not been working enough hours in the beginning of the winter due to the lack of ice on the lake” and “bills were piling up.”

She also explained in the complaint the large cash deposit was from money she borrowed from her father.

LaValla “stated over and over that she was going to pay it back eventually and the families ended up getting paid, so it was no big deal,” according to the complaint

Aftermath

When the Sheriff’s Office announced in late January it was investigating the claim about the GoFundMe account, donors took to social media to post mixed reactions about the claims.

On Tuesday, LaValla posted in her Facebook album titled “before I go” more than 150 pictures of comments people made on social media about the issue. She also wrote “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt.”

On Jan. 26, LaValla posted on the GoFundMe site detailing her side of the issue.

But Derosky said Tuesday she was relieved the allegations and investigation were resolved with the charges.

“I was glad to hear that she was going to serve the consequence for her actions,” she said. “It helps that the people of Baudette see that there was justice served and someone didn’t just get away with something.”

LaValla is scheduled for an appearance at 9:30 a.m. March 9 in Lake of the Woods County Court.

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