Anna Sitte was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease long before moving to New Hope in 2005 to live with her son, Steve. As Anna's dementia worsened, she was declared medically incapable of understanding or signing financial documents.

How, then, could Anna, now 77, have written two checks in 2007 alone totaling nearly $100,000 to Steve's business associate? Why would Anna, who had few expenses of her own, sell her family's century-old North Dakota farm and then allow her bank account to evaporate?

Steven Carl Sitte, 52, who told Hennepin County authorities he was unemployed and $300,000 in debt, forged his mother's signature 17 times in 2007 on checks totaling more than $136,000, according to court documents. Sitte has been charged with two counts of forging checks and two counts of theft by swindle, all felonies. He intends to plead not guilty in court Thursday, his attorney said Monday.

Each year, an estimated 5 million Americans fall victim to elder abuse, said Bob Blancato, national coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition in Washington, D.C. Of those cases, nearly one-fifth involve financial exploitation, said Sharon Merriman-Nai, co-manager of the National Center on Elder Abuse. The numbers of victims -- usually women between 75 and 80 -- are expected to increase as the population ages.

Yet elder-abuse crimes remain severely underreported -- with only 16 percent reported to adult protective services, according to the National Elder Abuse Incidence Study. Those cases can be challenging to prosecute, with victims in failing health often intimidated and unwilling to cooperate.

In Sitte's case, it was his brother, Jimmy, who called authorities.

"Reporting a family member?" Jimmy Sitte asked. "Some people feel it's wrong to turn in your own. My mother couldn't speak for herself. I had to on her behalf."

A legacy lost

It wasn't just the disappearance of more than $330,000 that prompted Jimmy Sitte to turn in his brother for allegedly forging checks and swindling their mother. It was also the land. And the blood.

This was about a 188-acre farm that the Sitte family had settled in 1912, land that Jimmy says his father, Carl Sitte, forbade others to sell. This was about the depleted bank accounts of Jimmy's mother -- accounts that Jimmy says contained funds from Anna Sitte's pensions and Social Security, and $274,500 from the 2007 sale of the farm that was never to be sold.

"My brother was obsessed with liquidating everything we had," said Jimmy Sitte, who lives on the 3 remaining acres of the farm, along the Minnesota border about 30 miles south of Fargo, that weren't sold. "But this was our land -- land with a family history."

Anna Sitte had fallen into a dark depression after her husband, Carl, died in 2002, Jimmy Sitte said. By 2004, she was living in an assisted-living facility in Moorhead.

Jimmy said he moved his mother to the farm in 2005, to live with him. But when Jimmy, a guitar and mandolin player, signed to play a September show in Wisconsin, he says he asked if he could bring Anna to Steve's home in New Hope for a visit. Steve would return Anna to the farm the following week, Jimmy said.

But Anna stayed in New Hope. According to court records, numerous checks were written from her Wells Fargo account in 2006, 2007 and 2008, totaling more than $185,000. The farm was sold on a quit claim filed in Hennepin County on May 27, 2007, with Anna Sitte listed as the seller.

"The damn Alzheimer's had taken so much from her," Jimmy said. "How could my brother, our own flesh and blood, take away nearly everything else from her?"

With the number of Americans 65 or older expected to double, to more than 71 million, by 2030, the Hennepin County Attorney's Office created the Elder Abuse Initiative in 2000. More recently, the Ramsey County Attorney's Office created an elder-abuse unit that began prosecuting cases in January.

Nationally, the proposed Elder Justice Act, which makes elder abuse of senior citizens a federal crime, is being strongly supported by President Obama.

Anna Sitte's case is typical, if proven in court, of what can happen to elders anywhere, Blancato said from Washington, D.C.

'Authorized investments'

Steve Sitte told authorities he spent money from his mother's account to offset personal debt, writing checks to credit-card companies and a business associate to whom he was in debt. He admitted that as his mother's health deteriorated, he wrote checks and signed her name, according to court records.

Anna Sitte "was aware of Steve's business venture" and "allowed, authorized and encouraged some of these monies in the investment" with the "understanding it would be paid back," Marshall Tanick, Steve Sitte's Minneapolis attorney, told the Star Tribune.

But Steve Sitte did not have the legal power of attorney to write checks, according to Jimmy Sitte and court documents. The only name on the Wells Fargo checking account was that of Anna C. Sitte.

A broken trust

The court file notes that Anna was treated by Dr. Britta Reierson, a Golden Valley family practitioner, who reported that Anna suffered dementia related to her Alzheimer's disease. By February 2007, Anna's cognitive abilities had "dramatically" diminished, Reierson told Hennepin County authorities.

Regarding the sale of the family farm, Reierson said she questioned "whether [Anna] was capable at that time to sign and understand those financial documents."

Jimmy Sitte learned of the sale the day he saw survey stakes and flags surrounding his three acres.

"The core of our family's heritage ... four generations ...gone, just like that," Jimmy Sitte said. "And my mother has no idea."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419