Down on his luck and going through a divorce in 2010, Thomas Syzdek asked his friend William Meredig for a place to stay. A few weeks after Meredig offered Syzdek a room at his comfortable Minneapolis home, Meredig suffered a debilitating stroke.

Syzdek stayed on while his friend went through months of hospitalization and rehab. That's when he began draining Meredig's $70,000 retirement fund, authorities say.

With access to his mail and financial records, Syzdek directed Meredig's investment company to issue a check for the entire account. He then forged Meredig's signature and cashed the check, using some of the money for vacations in Mexico with his new girlfriend, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said Friday while announcing Syzdek's nine-year sentence. Syzdek even signed over Meredig's Audi automobile to his ex-wife.

Syzdek, now 60, wasn't caught until the IRS contacted Meredig more than a year later about taxes he owed for liquidating his retirement account.

Meredig, now 61, who still can't write or use his right limbs and has difficulty talking, said Friday at Freeman's news conference that he had no clue that Syzdek previously had been convicted of ripping off friends and employers.

"Tommy Syzdek is my friend," Meredig said, often stopping because he couldn't find the right words. "Something is wrong with him. It's disgusting. I can't believe it."

Syzdek's scheme is the latest in the disturbing growth of serious swindle cases against vulnerable adults that Freeman said his office is charging. Since 2012, the number of cases has jumped from 12 to 36. The Legislature passed a law two years ago that makes it a felony to abuse a vulnerable adult.

Freeman cited two recent swindle crimes, including that of Maple Grove City Council Member LeAnn Sargent, who took more than $100,000 from her dying father. The other case involved a woman who befriended the disabled daughter of a couple and stole $200,000 from them.

The cases are often hard to prosecute because victims are hesitant to come forward and financial crimes are complicated to untangle, Freeman said. He appeared to take a measure of satisfaction in the nine-year sentence Syzdek received for identity theft and theft by swindle last week, one of the longest his office has seen a judge hand down in such a case.

Syzdek "deserves every single minute of it," Freeman said. "It took lots of gyrations, but we got him to plead guilty."

The plea came on the day Syzdek was scheduled to stand trial. He will serve his current sentence after finishing up a four-year sentence for another identity theft charge.

Taking advantage

Syzdek's criminal history goes back to 1972 for an armed robbery conviction. He was charged with stealing from his employer in 1978 and then for embezzling from his close friend while handling his taxes in 1987. Ten years later, he was charged with mail fraud.

Meredig didn't learn about Syzdek's string of financial frauds until 2011. He ran a credit report and discovered that Syzdek had used his credit card to run up expenses of nearly $19,000, according to a court document. Syzdek had persuaded the investment and credit card companies to change the mailing address to a post office box.

When investigators talked to Syzdek in February 2013, he said he was helping Meredig with his taxes and had paid his mortgage and utility bills after the stroke, the document said.

He admitted using Meredig's credit cards and giving the Audi to his ex-wife. Of the money from the investment account, he said he put some of it into a commodity account on Meredig's behalf and borrowed the rest, the document said.

Jim Meredig, William's brother, said Syzdek may have not planned to steal from him when he first moved in. But after the stroke, Syzdek saw the opportunity to take advantage of his friend, he said.

Freeman said: "This prosecution ends a tragic situation — a friend helps another friend, and then that friend steals from you."