Mario Cortolezzis rips off autism charity he founded for his son

Man has a long history of schemes

Although Dante wasn't speaking and sometimes had violent and emotional outbursts, he responded to his father more than others. Cortolezzis developed a special bond with Dante that was obvious to everyone.

"He's always hanging all over Mario. He loves his dad," says Paul Zunker, SAFER's public relations director and a former captain of the Minnetrista Police Reserves.

Cortolezzis was beside himself when he learned his son had been missing for over 20 minutes. But there was nothing he could do but drive and hope someone would find Dante.

Nate Boyd, whose son is enrolled in SAFER, still has the letter he was sent once the nonprofit's money came up missing
Jana Freiband
Nate Boyd, whose son is enrolled in SAFER, still has the letter he was sent once the nonprofit's money came up missing
Gavin Boyd was one of the first children in Waconia to receive a SAFER tracking bracelet
Jana Freiband
Gavin Boyd was one of the first children in Waconia to receive a SAFER tracking bracelet

Someone did. A woman driving past Lake Waconia looked out her window and saw a little boy in a red sweater playing in frigid water up to his knees. It was Dante.

After this scare, Cortolezzis vowed to never let it happen again. He began looking into tracking devices to protect his son. He also began advocating as a Minnetrista Police Reserve volunteer for special training for police on how to deal with autistic children.

Cortolezzis completed 800 hours of service with the reserves, making a point to speak about autism with every officer he encountered. He spent 700 hours putting together an educational film called "Where's the Justice?: Understanding Autism." After it aired on community television, Cortolezzis won slew of awards.

So when Sgt. Derek Lee came to Deputy Karnes with an idea for a service for families with autistic children given to wandering, Karnes thought immediately of Cortolezzis.

"I said, 'You know, Derek, I know this dad that's very up to speed with the autism world,'" Karnes recalls.

Existing radio-frequency tracking programs were prohibitively expensive for the Carver County Sheriff's Department, but Cortolezzis had an idea—they could purchase their own equipment direct from a manufacturer and do the tracking with volunteers instead of full-time officers. They would start their own nonprofit with Cortolezzis at the helm.

In October 2008, Cortolezzis unveiled the program at a meeting at Waconia High School. About 150 people from all over the region attended.

"It was like this was made for my family," says Rachel Boyd, whose son Gavin is autistic. "I was like, 'Yes! There's something that can help me.'"

She signed Gavin up the next week.

Three Rivers Park District jumped on board with the training, along with nine other fire and police agencies throughout Carver, Nicollet, and Hennepin counties. Fifteen children were outfitted with SAFER bracelets.

"We got some traction pretty quickly," says Lee. "This community was—and still is—in desperate need of something to help them."

Although SAFER formed a nine-member board, Cortolezzis ran the organization almost single-handedly. He drove all over Minnesota giving his presentations at community organizations and law enforcement agencies. A kennel in Forest Lake heard about the program and donated a German Shepherd puppy named Angel, which Cortolezzis began training as a tracker dog. Cortolezzis appeared in the Star Tribune and on KARE 11 news with Dante to promote SAFER.

Cortolezzis became well known to local kids as "Officer Mario." Both Zunker and Karnes called him one of their best friends. The SAFER team and their families would enjoy huge dinners at the Cortolezzis home.

"I never had pasta until I had his pasta," remembers Karnes. "He called me his brother. He interwove me into being family to him."

By 2009, it was clear behind the scenes that SAFER was experiencing growing pains. Cortolezzis was asking for a salary, yet his fundraising never seemed to be enough.

"We were growing but yet we didn't have any money to pay the actual expenses," says Lee.

With the possibility of corporate sponsorship, the SAFER board decided to hire an accountant, Larry Atneosen. But instead of providing him the financial documentation, Cortolezzis kept Atneosen in a holding pattern for five months.

"I kept calling him," says Atneosen, exasperated. "I didn't even have the checkbook."

After months of keeping their heads just above water, the board members believed the Oscar night party could finally put them safely in the black.

But things began to unravel early on. Karnes heard from other board members that guests who'd paid Cortolezzis $150 for their tickets never received them.

"Mario didn't even have a list of people he sold tickets to," says Karnes.

As Zunker scrambled to fill in the embarrassingly thin guest list, Lee finally got suspicious of Cortolezzis's behavior. Although Zunker saved the party by lowering the ticket prices to a bargain-basement $50, Lee decided that he would take the proceeds to the bank himself.

Two days after the party, Lee brought the $6,000 to the bank. When he tried to deposit the money in the account, he was told neither he nor Karnes were listed on any of SAFER's bank accounts. All he could do was see a print-out of activity on the checking account.

His eyes skimmed down a long list of charges. Target. Kwik Trip. Tradehome Shoes. Snap Fitness. And one that really set him off: Electric Beach Tanning.

"There were just a ton of them," he says.

Karnes, Lee, and Atneosen demanded that Cortolezzis meet them at Atneosen's office the next day. Lee told him to bring all of SAFER's financial records with him. He arrived with only a few receipts.

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