Ex-con Mark E. Wetsch loved the attention he got when he traveled with a former federal prosecutor to talk to groups across Minnesota about the financial crimes that had landed him in prison.

Now federal authorities have focused their attention on him as a suspect in nearly a dozen bank robberies by a criminal dubbed by authorities as the "Man in Black."

Wetsch was charged Thursday with holding up a bank in the small southwestern Minnesota town of Brewster, using a toy gun. In 2005, he was imprisoned after being convicted of defrauding a Twin Cities nursing home where he had worked out of $1.4 million and using part of that money to finance his daughter's training as one of Minnesota's more successful high school distance runners.

Wetsch, 49, who most recently worked as director of community relations for a Minneapolis-based health care advocacy group, recently told relatives that he'd married a woman he wanted to take to Africa. The Brewster bank robbery was supposed to fund that trip, according to a court document. In between the alleged robberies, he visited his parents in North Dakota and delivered a computer for a Christmas gift.

"Thank God he's locked up. Think of the bank tellers he terrorized," his mother, Rochelle Wetsch, said in a phone interview Thursday. "He needs help."

Wetsch was charged in Nobles County District Court with aggravated robbery, terroristic threats and theft in the holdup of the Rolling Hills Bank shortly before noon Tuesday. He was arrested later that day while driving near St. Peter, Minn. He made his first court appearance Thursday; bail was set at $300,000 and he is in custody at Nobles County jail in Worthington.

The "Man in Black" holdups included banks in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Hopkins, Arden Hills, Bloomington and Richfield. Law enforcement agencies from other cities are assisting in the investigation to determine whether Wetsch hit banks in Shakopee, Alexandria, Hastings, Orono, Faribault and Columbia Heights.

Although the robber began his spree in all-black clothing, some of his most recent robberies have featured brownish coats, authorities said. Wetsch resembles the man suspected in several of the robberies, and an apparent gun was also brandished during those crimes, they say. However, Wetsch hasn't been charged with any other bank robberies.

First bank too crowded

After he was arrested, Wetsch told police that his first robbery was his easiest and that they became more difficult as they went on, which he believed was unusual, the court document said. He didn't discuss any specific robberies.

According to the charges in the Brewster holdup, Wetsch left his Minneapolis home around 7 a.m. Tuesday intending to rob a bank in a small town. He first stopped at a bank in Heron Lake but left because it was too crowded with customers.

He then hit the Rolling Hills Bank in Brewster, pointing a toy cap gun that had been colored black with a Sharpie pen to make it appear real, the court document said. He was given $1,800. When he was arrested later by a detective who recognized the description of Wetsch's car, he told the detective that he'd had a bad feeling about the robbery.

Wetsch told police he used a toy gun because he didn't want to hurt anyone, the document said. He added that he liked to take care of others before himself and that helping others was expensive.

He said he'd planned to use the money for a trip to Africa on Wednesday. His mother said he told her during his Thanksgiving visit that he'd planned to travel on Dec. 25 but had run into trouble with his bank.

"His wife had absolutely no idea about his past and what he was apparently doing in the present," his mother said.

In 2005, Wetsch was sentenced to nearly four years in prison for defrauding the Sholom Home West nursing home in St. Louis Park while he was nursing director. He took money from September 1997 to January 2005 and used it not only to pay for a Corvette, three snowmobiles and a deck and gazebo for his Chaska house, but for competition and training trips for his daughter, Bria Wetsch, and to hire a private running coach for her.

Bria, now 23, was a three-time Class A state champion in the 3,200 meters in high school and went on to a successful career at the University of Oregon. She won the women's open division of the Hennepin Lakes Classic 10K when she was only 12.

'He likes attention'

After being released from prison, Mark Wetsch teamed up for a series of presentations with Hank Shea Sr., who prosecuted him in the Sholom Home case. Shea left the U.S. attorney's office to teach at the University of St. Thomas Law School. Wetsch would talk to groups about the destructive behaviors and decisions that led to committing crime, the consequences of his actions, and lessons to be learned from his example, according to a website posting for a seminar in St. Cloud in 2010. It was called "The Journey From Care-Giver to Convicted Felon."

Rochelle Wetsch said her son had just been released from prison in Yankton, S.D., after a federal parole violation for significantly under-reporting his net income to his probation officer between March 2009 and June 2010. He has been ordered to pay more than $1.5 million in restitution as part of his sentence in the Sholom Home case.

"He called us from prison, and we told him we weren't going to see him there," she said. "You just can't go through life this way."

When Wetsch visited his mother on Thanksgiving Day, she said he told her he was embarking on starting a home health care business. His website states he is director of community relations for Pangea Care Group of Minneapolis and Manhattan.

"He likes attention," his mother said, mentioning the seminars with Shea. "He wants to be more than he is."

She said he was living in an apartment in the 3000 block of Grand Avenue S. in Minneapolis with his second wife, a student at the University of St. Thomas. He and his first wife had three children, Bria being the oldest; the other two are in college. He also has two children with another woman.

Wetsch grew up in East Grand Forks, Minn., and was "always testing the system," his mother said. After high school, he attended St. Luke's Hospital School of Nursing in Fargo, she said.

The last time Wetsch talked to his parents was Dec. 17, when he told them he was going to Africa with his wife.

Rochelle Wetsch said she has looked at stories about the "Man in Black" robber and that the man in the surveillance pictures resembles her son.

"You just ask yourself why he did it," she said.

dchanen@startribune.com • 612-673-4465 pwalsh@startribune.com • 612-673-4482