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A 2017 forgery case in northeast South Dakota has the hallmarks of many elderly exploitation cases. An 85-year-old victim. A young family member as suspect. Money stolen, a family torn apart, hearts broken.
According to court papers, the case began when 21-year-old Brett J. Moffenbier of Florence, S.D. was living in a farmhouse vacated by his grandfather who had relocated to a nursing home. While living there, Moffenbier found a book of checks in a dining room drawer.
Moffenbier, who listed his occupation as forklift operator on booking documents, was known to police in Codington and Brown counties where he spent most of his time and had prior criminal convictions.
Over a period of roughly a month in June and July of 2017, Moffenbier wrote more than a dozen bad checks from his grandfather’s account, totaling more than $187,000. As the case developed, authorities showed that he forged checks for a $45,000 pickup truck, a $14,500 camper, and for restaurant meals, groceries, automotive parts and sporting goods in Codington, Brown, Minnehaha and Brookings counties.
Eventually, the seller of the truck in Groton and officials from the small bank in Florence where the account originated caught on and police were notified.
At first, Moffenbier told authorities he had permission to write the checks. A grand jury that heard testimony from several witnesses, including Moffenbier’s grandfather, believed otherwise and issued an indictment on multiple felony counts. Facing dozens of years in prison, Moffenbier accepted a deal to plead guilty as a habitual offender on numerous counts of forgery and grand theft. He is now serving seven years in the state penitentiary.
Court records indicate the elderly victim heard from the bank about the forged checks and had suspected his grandson. But a Watertown detective who helped investigate the crimes said the elderly gentleman had no idea how many checks had been written or for how much from the account that actually had a very low cash balance.
“This is an elderly gentleman, who had been a farmer his entire life, so he didn’t show much emotion,” said Sgt. Chad Stahl of the Watertown Police Department. “But it’s always unfortunate when something like this happens.”
Some victims don’t want to prosecute family
Stahl said he has investigated other financial crimes involving elderly victims and has found that many times the suspects go unpunished because victims shun prosecution of relatives who exploited them.
“They’re tough to prove because the victims don’t necessarily want to prosecute or hurt their family members,” Stahl said.
In this case, Stahl said he was surprised that retailers accepted so many bogus checks, especially for such large amounts. “Anytime nowadays with checks, places are so cautious about taking checks, it surprises me when you’re talking about that kind of money and buying those high-dollar items,” Stahl said.
Michael Sharp, a statewide elder exploitation prosecutor in the state Attorney General’s Office, helped work the case and said the forgeries had a rippling effect in terms of victims. The grandfather lost a small sum of cash, several small businesses lost money, and at least one restaurant no longer takes checks as a result of the scam. Also lost, Sharp said, was the small-town sense of trust that existed prior to the forgeries.
“There was a substantial monetary loss, but in my mind money is only part of it,” Sharp said. “The elder was a victim, but so was a waitress and society in general because now you can’t write a check there anymore.”
The case is one of 10 convictions obtained with assistance from the Attorney General’s elder exploitation team. Other ongoing or closed elderly exploitation cases in South Dakota include:
■ The May, 2017 sentencing of 50-year-old Stephan Nicholas McCrae of Fall River County to four years in prison on one count of grand theft by deception. Prosecutors say McCrae collect money for fence projects he never completed in several states, including South Dakota. McCrae was ordered to pay more than $10,000 in restitution to several victims, including senior citizens.
■ The November conviction of Ronald Wayne Whalen, 47, of Sioux Falls on attempted grand theft by deception charges in a case in which he tried to bilk an elderly victim of money. Whalen was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison concurrent with a term he is already serving on forgery charges.
■ The January conviction of 37-year-old Amy Schmidt of Aberdeen, who was sentenced to five years in prison after stealing more than $7,000 from three elderly victims whom she cared for as a home health nurse.
■ The February indictment of two people from Colorado on felony charges of financial elder abuse in the theft of more than $5,000 from an elderly victim in Butte County.
■ A Day County jury delivered a guilty verdict in April on grand theft by deception, sales tax fraud and other charges on 59-year-old Gary Podzimek of Bristol, who was convicted of billing an 83-year-old man more than $50,000 for fraudulent vehicle repairs. The victim died before getting his vehicle back from Podzimek, authorities say.
About Bart Pfankuch
Bart Pfankuch, Rapid City, S.D., is an investigative reporter for South Dakota News Watch. A Wisconsin native, he is a former editor of the Rapid City Journal. Bart has spent almost 30 years as a reporter and editor.