A woman who set up a GoFundMe page to aid the families of three fishermen who went missing on Lake of the Woods stole some of the donations that poured in, charges filed this week say.
Retina R. LaValla, of Baudette, Minn., was charged Tuesday with two felony theft counts for allegedly taking money meant to help the families pay for the search and funerals. She admitted using the funds for bills and groceries, the charges say.
Searches for the three men, who worked as fishing guides, began after their boat was found capsized Oct. 3. Later, the bodies of Justin Haugtvedt, 22, and Cody Ostendorf, 24, were found. Keith Ayers, 28, remains missing.
The resort community near the Canadian border was shaken by the loss. Hundreds donated to the crowdfunding page LaValla created, raising about $27,800.
LaValla was arrested Tuesday night, according to the Lake of the Woods County Sheriff’s Office. But she was taken by ambulance to LakeWood Health Center and then flown to a Bemidji hospital. “The Sheriff’s Office is releasing no further information,” the statement said.
LaValla, 28, who worked at Wigwam Resort, was friends with Haugtvedt and organized the campaign to do something productive for the families, she said in October.
“When I got the news, I felt helpless and had a hole in my heart,” she said then.
The sheriff’s office began investigating LaValla after Ayers’ mother, Carol Derosky, reported her. Derosky, who trekked from her home in Pennsylvania to Baudette after her son went missing, said that at first, the account encouraged her to keep up the search.
“It was a humbling experience to have that many people give and care and be supportive of us,” she said by phone.
After some prodding, LaValla gave Derosky $2,600 in cash and checks before stalling, then claiming the rest of the money was lost in transit. Haugtvedt’s father told the sheriff’s office that LaValla turned over about $7,800 in October and promised to send the rest by Christmas.
At first, LaValla told an investigator that she had “every cent accounted for,” the charges say. She also brought checks for the amounts owed to the families — about $5,750 for Derosky and $450 for each of the others. LaValla allegedly said that she “wanted to wash her hands from all of it.”
A search of LaValla’s bank account showed no checks issued in December, as LaValla had claimed. Records also revealed “multiple unaccounted for cash withdrawals from the account” and a check made out to “cash.”
LaValla later admitted that she hadn’t been working enough hours at the resort because of the warm weather, and “bills had been piling up,” the complaint says. She “stated over and over that she was going to pay it back eventually and the families ended up getting paid so it was no big deal.”
But Derosky believes LaValla harmed others, including the people of Baudette, who made her feel “like I had lived there my whole life.”
“People are going to second-guess giving,” she said. “We don’t need that in our society — to second-guess being good to someone else.”