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GoFundMe theft suspect didn't have to give all of raised funds to boating victims' families, defense says

This file photo show a GoFundMe account Retina LaValla set up for the families of three boaters who died in a boating accident on Lake of the Woods. The account has been closed.

BAUDETTE, Minn.—The trial for a Baudette woman accused of stealing from a GoFundMe account she set up for three men who died in a boating accident on Lake of the Woods is moving to a different county, but a judge did not dismiss charges against the defendant after her attorney argued she did not have to give all of the raised funds to the men's families.

Retina Reyellen LaValla, 28, was charged in February in Lake of the Woods District Court with two counts of felony theft after the Sheriff's Department said she used some of the donated money to pay for various bills and groceries.

Retina LaVallaLaValla's lawyer, Alan Bradley Fish, argued LaValla's trial should be moved to a county other than Lake of the Woods to ensure she has "an unbiased jury pool." Her case has been widely discussed on social media and in news outlets, which could create troubles in finding a balanced jury in Lake of the Woods County, Fish argued. He recommended the trial be moved to Koochiching or Beltrami counties.

Fish also argued both of LaValla's charges should be dismissed because she did not purposefully raise the money with the intention of stealing it. Also, like many national charities, LaValla did not have to turn over all of the money to the families but could instead keep some to pay for her expenses in managing the fundraiser, he said.

Judge Donna Dixon decided Tuesday that LaValla's charges will not be dismissed and "the evidence provides sufficient probable cause to support the charges."

But Dixon ordered a change of venue, though where the case will be moved to has not been determined.

LaValla's next court date also has not been set as of Tuesday evening.

Argument

In three months, almost 400 people donated more than $27,000 to the page after Justin Haugtvedt, 22, Cody Ostendorf, 24, and Keith Ayers, 28, went missing in a boating accident Oct. 3 on Lake of the Woods. The bodies of Ostendorf and Haugtvedt were found a week after they went missing near Flag and Oak islands, respectively. Ayers was found dead last month near Powder Island, a small island on the Ontario side of the lake.

"(LaValla) singlehandedly raised and disbursed thousands of dollars for a cause," Fish said. "That is undisputed."

Fish argued LaValla didn't raise the money with an ulterior motive, and she "ultimately gave 100 percent of funds she raised" to the families.

In fact, she didn't have to give 100 percent over, he continued, and the idea that all of the money had to be split three ways among the families is "arbitrary," he said.

"In fact, Retina LaValla made no promises whatsoever as to what amount of money would be turned over, what percentage would be given to any particular person or family, when it would be turned over, nor what she would be keeping, borrowing, using and replacing, or otherwise for herself for her time, efforts and expenses," Fish said.

GoFundMe "specifically anticipates quarrels such as this" and advises donors to only give money to people they trust. GoFundMe also deducts 5 percent of the donations.

Large, national charities act similarly, Fish said. He referred to the American Association of State Troopers, saying it keeps 91 percent of its funds for "soliciting" and contributes just 8.9 percent of its gross receipts.

The money went into LaValla's own personal account "according to the GoFundMe's own rules," becoming her "personal property."

"(The state) is simply trying to make up rules and control expenses ... all because the case involves families of deceased individuals that have gained widespread sympathy through misleading and inaccurate publicity," Fish said. "The law is to be blind of such sympathy and public pressure."

Rebuttal

The prosecution agreed there should be a change in venue to a nearby community. But it disagreed that LaValla's charges should be dismissed.

"Regardless of any claim or temporary control over the money, that money was not hers," County Attorney James Austad said. "She knew she was stealing money and ultimately had to go to her father in an attempt to bail her out of trouble once law enforcement came asking questions."

Austad argued Fish's fundraiser argument doesn't hold up because when she created the GoFundMe account, the site's terms and conditions made her acknowledge this was "not a charity."

"In the end, the defendant's argument about her ability to borrow or use money from the donations flies in the face of her own statements," Austad said.

Austad also argued LaValla never claimed the money was for herself, referring to one of the names she put on her GoFundMe page.

"The swindle occurred because the donors relied on the representation by the defendant that the money was 'support for our boys family,'" he said.

In this case, everyone involved is a victim "except for the defendant, who throughout this time has been the most vocal that she, in fact, is the victim," Austad said.

Becky Jacobs

Becky Jacobs is the crime and courts reporter for the Herald.

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