Everybody looks like a friend to Kevin Farley. From the people who come to the Eagan grocery store where he works, to shopkeepers and strangers on the street. If you've ever met Kevin, even in passing, he probably considers you a friend.

Unfortunately, that's the problem.

Kevin is 49, but in some ways he has the mental capacity of a child or preteen. Kevin has high functioning autism, which means he can work and perform many daily tasks, but lacks the social skills that adults use to interact -- and to protect themselves.

That vulnerability may have cost him a significant inheritance. According to a complaint detailed in a lawsuit filed in Texas, the people first designated to look after Kevin's parents' estate - Aaron and Katherine Rosenthal - are alleged to have spent most of the money put aside for his care.

For nearly five years, two men have been fighting for Kevin, a tobacco store owner whom Kevin visited with every day after work and an attorney who met him when he stopped in to buy cigars. The attorney, Paul Taylor, has pestered police, Dakota County social workers, the county attorney, and finally the U.S. attorney's office, where Taylor said the matter of Kevin's welfare was effectively neglected. Taylor said the statute of limitations could run out soon.

After I started calling this week, the Dakota County attorney's office dug the file out of the basement and is investigating, according to Taylor and the office's spokeswoman, Monica Jensen.

"We looked at this case again and this is incredibly sad," said Jensen. "We're trying to do the right thing."

A mother's plan

Kevin Farley lived with his mother and father most of his life, and worked at a Cub grocery store. His mother, Joanne, put more than $234,000 into a "thrift plan" before she died in 1997. The money was to be paid out monthly to help support her husband, Bill, and Kevin.

In 2003, Bill fell ill. Just before he died, he gave general power of attorney to the Rosenthals, who lived in the same apartment building. Kevin told friends that his father had only granted the couple medical power of attorney.

Attempts to reach the Rosenthals were unsuccessful.

Bill Farley died on May 8, 2004. Larry Schonher held the wake at his house. Schonher had owned a coin and tobacco shop near the Farley's apartment, and Kevin had stopped by nearly every day for more than 20 years to chat.

"I probably know Kevin better than anyone," said Schonher.

"I can usually figure out what was going on upstairs, and he trusted me. I was the only one who knew the family had a lot of money put away for him."

Starting a couple of days before Bill Farley's death, and over the next 30 days, someone repeatedly used his ATM card dozens of times, drawing the maximum $300 from various locations around Eagan and Apple Valley, according to bank records.

That summer, Kevin told Schonher that he was moving with the Rosenthals to Texas. Schonher called Eagan police as the moving van was being loaded. Kevin's father had not wanted to put a stigma on his son, so never had him identified as a vulnerable adult. Police said that because Kevin was an adult, there was nothing they could do.

A social worker from Dakota County interviewed the Rosenthals and decided Kevin would be better off with them "in a family environment."

The social worker apparently never discovered that Aaron Rosenthal had been convicted of burglary in 1988. After Rosenthal took Kevin to Texas, he was convicted of cocaine possession, according to Texas court documents.

"I think [authorities] just dragged their feet during this whole thing," said Schonher. "I guess somebody autistic getting ripped off wasn't important enough."

Dakota County social workers did not return phone calls. The U.S. attorney's office declined comment.

"Gutless," said Taylor, an employment lawyer who looked into Kevin's situation for free.

"They said they were concerned they couldn't convict."

The Rosenthals moved to Cibolo, Texas, with Kevin and bought a $200,000 home. In September 2004, Taylor got Kevin to revoke the Rosenthals' power of attorney. Yet the next day, Katherine Rosenthal withdrew $214,000 from Kevin's bank account and transferred it into her own, bank records show. The next month, she cashed in another account worth $173,725.

Taylor got another attorney to sue the couple in Texas, but the case was put on hold because at some point the couple apparently left the state.

In 2006, Taylor and Schonher drove to Texas and brought Kevin back to Minnesota. At first, he lived with the Schonhers. He now lives with Taylor, who estimates he's put $40,000 worth of work into the case. On Friday, Taylor talked to an Eagan police officer who has reopened an investigation.

"Kevin is a great guy. He just needs some help to get by," Taylor said.

Sitting at a restaurant Friday, drinking a chocolate malt, Kevin said he didn't know his parents left him money.

The Rosenthals "kept me in the dark," he said.

Kevin, who said he has been up for employee of the month three times, likes his part-time job but could have used that money to get by and purchase his one luxury -- cigars.

What would he have done with those hundreds of thousands of dollars?

"Save it for a very rainy day," he said.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702