On October 3, Justin Haugtvedt, 22, Cody Ostendorf, 24, and Keith Ayers, 28, were reported missing after their boat was found capsized on Lake of the Woods.
The three men were well known in Baudette, where they worked, and their disappearance triggered massive air and water searches. The bodies of Haugtvedt and Ostendorf eventually turned up. Ayers has not been found.
Naturally, sympathetic strangers crowdfund money to help the grieving families with travel expenses, funeral costs, and – in the case of Ayers– a continued search. Retina LaValla, a 28-year-old who worked at Baudette’s Wigwam fishing resort and was supposedly friends with one of the boaters, volunteered to set up the GoFundMe account. It raised more than $27,000 from around the country.
LaValla also arranged a small benefit at Wigwam Resort, which raised $435. All of the proceeds were supposed to go to the three families.
After GoFundMe took its 5 percent cut, each family was supposed to receive about $8,500. But according to a criminal complaint filed against LaValla, they were robbed.
She sent the families incremental checks from October until November. By then, Ayers’ mother, Carol Derosky, had received only $2,600.
She asked LaValla when the rest of the money would be sent, and LaValla began to make excuses, according to the complaint. The checks must have gotten lost in the mail, LaValla explained. It would take two weeks to issue new ones, but she promised they'd arrive by Christmas.
When her check didn’t show up, Derosky asked the Lake of the Woods Sheriff’s Office to look into LaValla. Investigator Joseph Morisch tracked her down at Wigwam’s Resort, where she insisted that every cent in the GoFundMe was accounted for. The next day, LaValla gave Morisch a handwritten ledger of payments to the three families, and cashier’s checks totaling the remaining funds. She explained that her bank was able to issue the new checks without delay because a cop had gotten involved and was accusing her of stealing.
Investigator Morisch delivered the checks to the three families, but continued to trawl LaValla’s bank records. According to his complaint, there were multiple unaccounted for cash withdrawals from the account, and the checks that were supposedly lost in transit were never issued. The very night that Morisch first met LaValla, she had made a cash deposit of $6,686.
According to Morisch, LaValla eventually came clean, complaining that a warm winter and thin ice had prevented her from working enough hours to pay her bills. She said she used the GoFundMe money for assorted bills and groceries. She replaced the missing funds with an emergency loan from her dad. LaValla insisted that she would have paid the money back eventually, according to the complaint, and that because “the families ended up getting paid, it wasn’t a big deal.”
On Tuesday, LaValla was charged with two counts of theft. If she is found guilty, each count comes with a maximum penalty of 10 years or a $20,000 fine. She’s due to appear in Lake of the Woods County Court on March 9.