An Eagan man will serve a year in the county workhouse and pay restitution of $111,000 for emptying his mother's retirement nest egg of hundreds of thousands of dollars, a case that brought to light the growing financial abuse of seniors.
Ward Allen Knutson, 47, was taken into custody Wednesday after being sentenced by Hennepin District Judge Kerry Meyer, who said she decided against prison time for Knutson to give him every chance to pay back what he owes to his mother and to get psychological help for his gambling and other issues.
But Meyer also put Knutson on probation for 20 years, an unusually long time, and ruled that if he violates any of several conditions he would go to prison for 42 months.
"There are things you need to work on. ... I can't rebuild this, but you can. I wish you luck," she told Knutson before deputies led him away.
Family members told the court that Doris Knutson, 87, has been reduced to a "Ramen noodle lifestyle" by her son's depredations. She refuses to take money from her other children, rarely leaves her home and has lost weight and sleep, they said.
"She has been emotionally raped by her son and suffers the ongoing consequences of that action," said Jean Knutson, Ward Knutson's sister-in-law.
Knutson's brother Dean said their mother decided not to attend Wednesday's sentencing on the advice of a counselor.
"Her family is broken apart, with the real possibility that reconciliation will never occur," he told the judge. "At her age, her family is her life. She would sacrifice her own wishes, wants, desires for her family. That is how she lived her life. Her son's actions have destroyed this hope and dream."
Meyer ordered Knutson to pay his mother $2,000 a month for the next five years. Family members believe Knutson bilked his mother out of nearly $800,000 over about 11 years.
He also was ordered to pay a $30,000 fine, told to have no contact with his mother and is barred from handling financial affairs for anyone else.
The prison term Meyer imposed and then suspended is double that suggested under state guidelines, but she said the case involved "numerous aggravating factors" -- the large sum taken, the many ways it was done, the betrayal of a mother's trust and her vulnerability as a senior citizen.
Knutson was charged in November with swindling more than $320,000 from his mother, using her savings to vacation at luxury golf resorts, join a country club, engage in phone sex and remodel his basement. Jean Knutson told the court that not only did he drain his mother's accounts, he also tapped college funds she had set up for her grandchildren.
Family members, who wanted a three-year prison term followed by probation, were disappointed. They said they doubted the sentence would force Knutson to change. "We've been asking him to get help for two years and pay restitution for two years," Jean Knutson said.
In a rambling statement before sentencing, Knutson said he was "deeply sorry" for his actions. He said "defense mechanisms" had prevented him from confronting what he did, but he also suggested his propensity for gambling made him believe he could restore the money in short order.
"I hurt every day of my life for my mother. ... I was concerned about me, but that doesn't take away what I felt inside about my mother," he said.
A recent study found that seniors lost at least $2.9 billion nationally in 2010. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman has said he wants to put more prosecutors and staff on financial exploitation cases.
Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455