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Mario Cortolezzis pleads guilty in autism fraud

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Mario Cortolezzis -- the father who stole from his own autism charity and was the subject of our November 24 cover story -- pleaded guilty to the scheme today in Carver County court, on four counts of felony theft.

"He really was very cooperative," says SAFER founder and Carver County Sheriff's Deputy Ben Karnes. "He admitted everything."

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Cortolezzis founded SAFER with two members of the Carver County Sheriff's department back in October of 2008. The charity provided tracking bracelets to children with autism who have a tendency to wander. Cortolezzis's son Dante was the inspiration and SAFER's first member child.

Despite his personal connection to autism awareness, an audit revealed that almost since the charity's inception, Cortolezzis used donated money for personal expenses -- everything from shoe shopping to tanning salon bills. Once confronted, Cortolezzis also admitted he'd paid his mortgage and taken out nearly $10,000 on SAFER's line of credit. The audit showed $60,204 was missing.

Though a criminal investigation proved less than half that amount, in today's plea, Cortolezzis agreed to pay back the full amount being requested -- $42,977. Karnes is optimistic that if the restitution is paid, the nonprofit will be able to get back on its feet and accept new member children.

"That'll be pretty close for us to pay the debtors off," he says. "Once we're able to do that, we'll be able to see if SAFER's going to be able to make it."

Mario Cortolezzis when he was still a trusted spokesman for autism awareness.

Mario Cortolezzis when he was still a trusted spokesman for autism awareness.

Cortolezzis has also agreed to 60 days in jail, pending his ability to pay back the restitution by his March 4th sentencing hearing. While about a half dozen past civil cases reveal Cortolezzis has a tendency not to honor restitution, failure this time could result in a longer jail sentence.

"At least he finally gave it up," says Karnes. "I feel good about that part."