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Minnesota man pleads guilty to swindling ag association out of more than $50,000

WILLMAR -- Less than two weeks after he pleaded not guilty to swindling the West Central Ag Sales Association out of over $50,000, the group's 65-year-old former treasurer asserted a guilty plea to felony theft by swindle Monday.

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WILLMAR - Less than two weeks after he pleaded not guilty to swindling the West Central Ag Sales Association out of over $50,000, the group’s 65-year-old former treasurer asserted a guilty plea to felony theft by swindle Monday.

Robert Craig Starz, of Richmond -- formerly of Atwater, was originally charged in February in Kandiyohi County District Court with three felony counts of theft by swindle. Two of those charges will be dismissed at a July 25 sentencing hearing, per Monday’s plea agreement.

The sentence is expected to be stayed. He will also have to pay nearly $50,000 in restitution, starting with $15,000 paid at the time of his plea, followed by monthly $500 payments, according to the plea agreement.

Starz was a 35-year member and 10-year treasurer of West Central Ag Sales Association, an agri-business group with 16-18 active members and 30-40 total members.

The group is well-known for its Willmar Ag Show, an annual fundraising event to fund scholarships to students in the agricultural field.

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By February, when the charges were filed in court, Starz was no longer the group’s treasurer, group member Randy Barka told the Tribune then.

According to the criminal complaint on the charges, two members of the association reported Starz’s alleged misconduct to the Willmar Police Department Dec. 28 after noticing $15,000 from the association’s checking account was missing and and the group’s $40,000 savings account had been emptied.

In his 10 years as treasurer, Starz had little to no supervision.

He was in charge of filing the group’s taxes and had access to both of its bank accounts.

At the group’s Jan. 8 meeting, Starz allegedly admitted to embezzling funds for his own use. An audio recording of that meeting was given to a detective at the Willmar Police Department.

Later investigation revealed at least four unauthorized checks from 2012, 2014 and 2015 written to Bank of America, US Bank and Starz’s personal business. All were signed on behalf of Starz.

According to court documents, in a Feb. 4 interview with police, Starz admitted to writing himself checks from the Ag Association’s account to pay for his personal credit card, business account and checking account, including a single 2012 check of $40,000 to make a credit card payment.

Starz is the former owner of New London Feeds, a business that closed abruptly in June 2015, according to Tribune archives.

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He allegedly told police that “the interest rates that the Ag Association was receiving on their accounts is bad” and that he believed he could use the association’s money for his failing business, then pay the group back before anyone noticed.

He also allegedly admitted to falsifying checking and savings total sheets to cover up the missing money from the accounts.

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