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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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."