He looted her nest egg to fund a lifestyle that included pricey trips and phone sex, authorities say.
An 86-year-old Richfield woman once worth more than $3 million is broke, and the son who managed her affairs has been charged with plundering his mother's nest egg to feed a lavish lifestyle featuring trips to golf resorts, spa sessions, limo rides and phone sex charges, according to police and court records.
Earlier this month, Ward Allen Knutson, 46, was charged with swindling more than $320,000 from his mother, who told police she did not authorize her son to take her funds for his personal use. If convicted of the felony, Knutson faces up to 20 years in prison and $100,000 in fines.
"He's been doing this a long time, back into 98 or '99," Hennepin County Mike Freeman said. "We've got a ton of evidence that he was swindling -- bank cards, electronic transfers, etc."
Authorities said Knutson may face additional charges. Family members told police that Knutson also stole at least $65,000 from his incapacitated mother-in-law.
Knutson, who lives in Eagan, declined to comment. Family members told police he is married and has four daughters. He serves on the board of directors of the Eagan Wave youth soccer club.
Financial abuse of seniors is a growing problem. Nationally, seniors lost at least $2.9 billion in 2010, according to a recent study. Freeman said these cases can have devastating consequences for victims whose life savings are sometimes wiped out by trusted loved ones.
"Unfortunately we see too many of these where one of the kids starts to swindle their mother or father out of their estate," said Freeman, who said his office plans to dedicate more prosecutors and staff to meet a growing number of financial exploitation cases.
Knutson told police that his mother, Doris Lavonne Knutson, gave him permission to oversee her investments in 1999. At some point, she had investments and cash worth $3 million to $4 million, family members told police.
Over the years, Knutson reassured his mother that she still had substantial sums of money in her accounts. Family members recounted one conversation from July 2010, when Doris Knutson inquired about her current trading balance.
"Probably over a million," Ward Knutson responded, according to police records.
In fact, according to the police report, Doris Knutson was "essentially broke" in 2010. "The funds in the accounts were emptied through mismanagement and theft," according to the Richfield police report.
Family members didn't discover the funds were missing until last Christmas. Two of Knutson's brothers went to police with their concerns about two months later, in February 2011, after they were unable to reach a repayment agreement with Ward Knutson.
After reviewing their mother's financial records, family members determined that Ward Knutson used his mother's money to cover his monthly mortgage payment, his Comcast bills, AT&T bills and other personal expenses, including "multiple trips to golf resorts, spa sessions, restaurants, limo services, expensive phone sex and adult entertainment viewing charges."
Altogether, family members claim they have evidence that Ward Knutson stole at least $779,113 from his mother over an 11-year period ending in 2010, police records show.
Police searched his home in March 2011 and found "multiple checks" and a credit card in his mother's name. When questioned by police, Ward Knutson acknowledged that some of his personal expenses were covered without his mother's knowledge or approval. He also admitted forging his mother's name on various checks and depositing those checks into his wife's account after forging his wife's signature. Investigators said Knutson obtained the checks after "fraudulently convincing" his mother that he needed them for a business transaction, according to the criminal complaint.
When family members asked how he was able to open and close so many financial accounts without his mother's knowledge or approval, Ward Knutson said, "You can do anything if you have a Social Security number," according to the police report.
Doris Knutson, who lives in Richfield, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
After her son failed to pay his mother's 1999 tax liability, the IRS put a lien on her property, garnished her income and seized her checking accounts, according to the police report.
"The only money Doris has seen from Ward is $3,500 in January of 2010, which was immediately used to pay her living expenses that were overdue," according to the police report.
Brad Schrade • 612-673-4777