Mario Cortolezzis rips off autism charity he founded for his son

Man has a long history of schemes

Confronted with a print-out of the checking activity, Cortolezzis said it looked like he had accidentally mixed his personal checking account with the SAFER account.

"I could tell he was scared," says Lee.

Cortolezzis left a few days later for a vacation in Aruba, and the SAFER board members sprang into action. They collected all the assets and paperwork they could find, and put Atneosen to work on a full audit.

Although the Boyds say Gavin's bracelet still works, the SAFER program may have to be scrapped entirely due to the debt incurred by Cortolezzis
Jana Freiband
Although the Boyds say Gavin's bracelet still works, the SAFER program may have to be scrapped entirely due to the debt incurred by Cortolezzis

A week later, Atneosen delivered the bad news: $60,204 was missing.

Once everything came out, Zunker did something he hadn't bothered to do when he screened Cortolezzis for his position with the reserves: He checked his civil record. What he found lurking there made his heart sink.

"There's too much of a pattern here," he says.

One of the first judgments against Cortolezzis went to an immigrant family from Italy who befriended him when he first moved to Minnesota in 1998. Lionella and Sergio Zampa say they considered him like a son.

That was until he borrowed $8,000 from them in 2000 and didn't pay it back—then stopped calling them.

"It's gone beyond the money now," says their son Mauro. "It's just the principle of it."

After they sued him in 2005, a slow trickle of money came in, but it stopped far short of the $6,000 they were out.

Around the same time that the Zampas were pressuring Cortolezzis for their money, he started a landscaping business called Great Lakes Contracting. From 2005 to 2009, he was sued for thousands in payments for various jobs that were never completed.

"He's probably always looking for a way to get rich quick," says one man owed several thousand—a former acquaintance who asked not to be named.

Yet another former friend is responsible for the listing on the website "Rip-off Report." Ryan Fuchs says back in 2005 Cortolezzis used to come to Minneapolis to party with him and his friends. Cortolezzis was living large, renting limousines, paying for bottle service, and saying he was going to open a club called Piccolino's on Block E.

Fuchs says they became such good friends they decided to move in together. On moving day, Fuchs says, Cortolezzis never showed up. Fuchs later heard Cortolezzis was still living in Waconia with his wife. There was no apartment.

"He totally threw me," says Fuchs. "He was an amazing liar."

Not even the limo driver got paid. Mohammad Namjoo sued Cortolezzis for $1,700 in unpaid fares, but settled for $900 after Cortolezzis told him he was trying to straighten his life out.

"He said he wants to be a policeman," says Namjoo. "I was shocked. What kind of future policeman will he be?"

By that time, Cortolezzis was applying for the Minnetrista Reserves.

As Karnes, Lee, Zunker, Atneosen, and SAFER board members began cleaning up the mess that had been made, they closed down the office and cleared out the desks.

As he was cleaning out a drawer, Karnes found a letter addressed to Cortolezzis, thanking him for his hard work and promising him a five-figure salary from SAFER. He saw his own name typed in the signature box.

"I thought Ben was going to lose it. He was speechless," says Atneosen. "I think Ben finally realized this guy is a friggin' crook."

Karnes says the letter was sent to a mortgage company as proof that Cortolezzis had an income.

"It made me so sick I almost threw up in the parking lot," Karnes says.

Karnes and Lee sent Cortolezzis an email and a certified letter firing him from his position as executive director.

Hoping to smooth things over, Cortolezzis had his parents in Italy wire $15,473 to SAFER. But the board members had already made up their minds. They walked into the Carver County Sheriff's office and filed a criminal complaint against Cortolezzis. The investigation was turned over to Dakota County to prevent a conflict of interest.

According to the audit, since the very first SAFER presentation at Waconia High School, Cortolezzis had been using the account as a personal piggy bank. Hardly a month went by without several questionable charges—everything from $3.20 RedBox DVD rentals to $5,200 cash withdrawals. Cortolezzis even used the SAFER account to pay off one of the old contracting customers who'd sued him.

Cortolezzis also admitted that he'd paid his mortgage twice from the SAFER account, about $3,100 total. He told investigators that he'd deposited money back into the coffers, but there was no record of that.

Although the auditor had found $44,731 still missing after the money wire, the criminal investigation could only prove $29,324 in damages.

As a result of the investigation, all kinds of other sketchy details came to light. SAFER's 501(c)(3)paperwork had never been filed. Expenses that were supposedly donated were actually delinquent bills—everything from car maintenance to billboards.

"He just lied and lied and lied," says Atneosen.

Most alarming of all, the board learned that seven law enforcement agencies and at least four families had paid for tracking equipment they never received. Eden Prairie Police was one of the agencies that dropped the program after they didn't get their order, rendering bracelets purchased by families in the area useless.

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