Mario Cortolezzis rips off autism charity he founded for his son

Man has a long history of schemes

The evening of the 2010 Oscars was crisp on Lake Waconia. Guests dressed in evening gowns and rented tuxedos hustled from their cars to a limousine parked at the door of Lola's Lakehouse Restaurant. One by one they emerged at the edge of a red carpet, where members of the Waconia High School drama club screamed like frenzied fans.

Past the foyer, waiters in bow ties handed out glasses of champagne and whitefish mousse crostini. In the dining room, the floor-to-ceiling windows offered a spectacular view of five-foot-tall plywood letters atop a mountain of snow spelling out "Hollywood."

Some of the guests took in the glitz somewhat sheepishly—this was over-the-top for a little town like Waconia—but it was all for a good cause. A portion of the proceeds was going to Search and Find Emergency Responders, a homegrown nonprofit that provided tracking bracelets to autistic children.

Lars Leetaru
A screen shot of Mario Cortolezzis in "Where's the Justice," an educational film about autism that profiled Cortolezzis's son
A screen shot of Mario Cortolezzis in "Where's the Justice," an educational film about autism that profiled Cortolezzis's son

In its previous year, the nonprofit had raised $34,036 in donations and sold $12,943 worth of tracking equipment at cost. And 2010 promised to be their biggest year yet, with $15,000 already raised by March and big corporate sponsorships in the works with McDonald's. SAFER was on track to go statewide, with talk of expanding nationally.

The founders were all there on Oscar night. One of the them, Carver County Sheriff's Deputy Ben Karnes, rose to introduce SAFER's executive director, Mario Cortolezzis.

Cortolezzis, a lean-faced 36-year-old with baleful brown eyes, screened a short film featuring Dante, Cortolezzis's seven-year-old son and SAFER's first member child. As Dante was shown riding his bicycle, Cortolezzis explained how his family's terrifying experience with the boy wandering off had inspired him to found SAFER.

He would do anything, Cortolezzis said after the film, to keep his son safe and to provide the same service to others like Dante.

As the 85 guests applauded, one person—SAFER's third founder, Carver County Sheriff's Sergeant Derek Lee—watched nervously from his seat.

"My stress level was up," he says. "There was a lot of tension in that room."

As the donors scraped the last bits of raspberry coulis from their dessert plates, Lee gathered up the checks and cash from the live auction. Cortolezzis came over and offered to bring the money to the bank, as he usually did. Lee refused.

"No, Mario," Lee said. "I will."

Holding what turned out to be a little over $6,000 in cash and checks, Lee walked to his pickup with a terrible sense of foreboding.

What he didn't know was that Cortolezzis was harboring a secret that would soon bring the organization to its knees.

The rate of diagnoses of autism has soared 600 percent in the last 20 years. With increased awareness has come a huge industry designed to meet the needs of the roughly 1 in 110 children afflicted with the condition. That has translated into lucrative business, particularly in the last five years. In 2008, the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee estimates, $222 million was spent on autism research in this country.

Celebrities with autistic children have flocked to the cause, including quarterback Dan Marino and actress Jenny McCarthy. McCarthy launched a second career writing about her autistic son with Louder Than Words, which became a New York Times bestseller. Her autism nonprofit brought in nearly $1.2 million in 2008.

The glut of new money and public awareness has attracted its fair share of shysters. One Rochester, Minnesota, woman working as a treasurer siphoned $42,655 off a charity started by the parents of an autistic boy. In West Virginia, three people were accused of selling $74,000 worth of laptops, promising the proceeds would go to a national autism charity—they pocketed the cash instead. In Connecticut, a woman charged parents and a local school district $180,000 for autism therapy, claiming she had decades of experience—in truth she hadn't even finished high school.

"There's people wanting to jump on the bandwagon of, 'How can I make a lot of money in this area?'" says Dr. Lawrence P. Kaplan, CEO of U.S. Autism and Asperger Association. "You have to be very, very careful about what their mission is and what's behind it."

SAFER donors thought they knew Mario Cortolezzis. The fact that his life was personally touched by autism was all the credentials he needed.

"Who wouldn't believe it?" says Deputy Karnes. "You have a son with autism and this is for him."

Five years ago, Mario Cortolezzis was behind the wheel of his car, racing back to Waconia from Minneapolis. He'd just gotten off the phone with his son Dante's school. The four-year-old boy had gone missing.

"I was driving, crying my eyes out, thinking, 'How am I going to tell my mom and dad their grandson is dead?'" he says.

Dante's teacher had turned her back on the boy for just a second, but that was all the time he needed. Like many other autistic children his age, Dante had a tendency to wander off. He wasn't afraid of cars or roads. He just wanted to run.

Born in Ontario but raised in Italy, Cortolezzis blames his machismo for why he was at first embarrassed by his son's condition. He refused to acknowledge the diagnosis until the boy was two years old.

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