AL woman pleads not guilty to exploitation charges

Published 5:31 pm Saturday, December 20, 2014

An Albert Lea woman pleaded not guilty Thursday to taking money from accounts of at least a half dozen people with disabilities at a local care provider and spending the dollars on marijuana and personal goods.

Stephanie Lynn Behrends, 28, was charged in Freeborn County District Court with financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult and with check forgery. Both are felonies. She gave her plea before Judge Steven Schwab.

A jury trial has been scheduled for July 14, though her next court appearance comes in mid-March.

Behrends was a program coordinator at REM Woodvale in Albert Lea at the time of the alleged misuse in 2011 and 2012. The facility houses people with intellectual and physical disabilities.

Court documents state a program coordinator is in charge of managing and keeping records of the residents’ finances. There was reportedly more than $4,000 in missing and unaccounted for funds under Behrends’ control.

The criminal complaint states staff at REM Woodvale began to suspect Behrends was stealing funds from residents in the fall of 2011 when conducting monthly financial audits. There were numerous missing receipts.

The complaint says administrators began reviewing the financial records more in depth in May 2012 after a weekend staff member discovered that all of the residents’ checkbooks, savings books, ledgers and cash pouches were missing from a locked cupboard in an apartment Behrends was assigned. The documents were in Behrends’ office.

Court records state upon further review administrators found that Behrends had not made any entries in the residents’ ledgers since several months prior and that the dates recorded for bank deposits and withdrawals were often inconsistent with bank records.

Three residents had received overdraft notices, and Behrends had reportedly written out numerous checks for cash, the court files allege.

Administrators also found inconsistencies in some of the purchases reported. For example, a Walmart receipt was submitted for one resident for about $140. The receipt indicated purchases of tank tops, crop tops, polo shirts and capri pants, though the resident wore only sweatshirts and sweatpants, state the court files.

Behrends reportedly admitted to a police detective in May 2012 that she had written checks to cash from the residents’ accounts and used the money for herself, including using it to buy marijuana and personal items. She told the detective she was unsure how much money she had taken, but agreed the amount was probably between $4,000 and $5,000.

Behrends is also accused of forging another staff member’s name on at least six checks or withdrawal slips.

The charges she faces carry sentences of up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Waseca lawyer Kevin Riha is her public defender.