Mario Cortolezzis rips off autism charity he founded for his son

Man has a long history of schemes

"That was the hard part for me," says Zunker. "It's those special-needs families that this is affecting the most."

The board returned the SAFER squad car and sold its siren and lights on eBay. The tracking dog Angel went to a new family. The office was closed up and the logo razored off the windows.

Even now that its assets are liquidated, the organization still owes $34,520 to various vendors. Though the tracking bracelets still work for now, the organization is hanging by a thread.

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

The last time Karnes and Lee went to Cortolezzis's home to collect keys and any remaining SAFER equipment, Karnes took a coin Cortolezzis had given him out of his wallet. It was embossed with the word, "Brother." Karnes flipped it to the ground at Cortolezzis's feet.

"I'm not your brother," he said. "Brothers wouldn't do this to each other."

In the booth of a nearly empty Chinese restaurant 45 minutes outside of Waconia, Cortolezzis points toward the ceiling at a white paper lantern. On his right hand he wears a blue rubber "Autism Awareness" bracelet.

"I needed to get to that lamp up there—there was the vision," he says. "We knew we had something big."

He says he wanted SAFER to become an international nonprofit, but his home's looming foreclosure made him desperate.

"There was a point with me where I was thinking that if I just get some stuff taken care of for home, I'll be able to pay it back," he says. "It just snowballed."

In addition to having to pay back the missing money, Cortolezzis is facing up to 180 days in jail, a thought that fills his eyes with tears. As he prepares to go to trial, he has a new full-time job for the first time in years as a sales manager for a contracting company in St. Paul. He says he's back in church. He says all he wants to do is be a dad.

Asked how to reconcile his fatherly image with someone who'd steal from the charity founded for his son, Cortolezzis doesn't have much of an answer.

"I don't know," he says.

But mixed in with his contrition is anger over the treatment he's gotten—particularly the cold looks from strangers in the grocery store.

"Who are you to judge? You never made a mistake? You never made a poor decision?" he says. "It's not like I went to a nursing home and stole money out of everybody's purse as they were sleeping." 

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