Lake Park mayor signs plea deal
Lake Park Mayor Aaron Wittnebel agreed to plead guilty to a felony charge of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult in Becker County District Court Monday.
He pleaded guilty on an Alford basis. With Alford pleas, defendants typically do not admit guilt, but acknowledge a jury could reasonably convict them based on the evidence.
At a plea hearing held late Monday afternoon, Wittnebel answered “yes” to a question from Judge Jay Carlson, in which he asked whether Wittnebel agreed that the state had sufficient evidence for a jury to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Wittnebel, 32, was accused last August of financially exploiting his sister, a Down syndrome patient who resides at a nearby assisted living facility.
Court documents state Wittnebel, who was his disabled sister’s guardian and conservator of her estate, had failed to pay for more than $6,000 of her care at Divine House in Detroit Lakes, and that about $5,409 of her money was missing.
As part of the plea agreement, Wittnebel agreed to pay $5,400 to the court as restitution, and Becker County prosecutors will ask for a stayed jail sentence.
At a hearing on a petition to replace him as her conservator, Wittnebel admitted he had combined his finances with that of his sister, and had not made regular payments to Divine House.
During questioning from his attorney, Joseph Irby of Detroit Lakes, Wittnebel indicated he had some concerns about the level of personal care his sister had received at the facility, and had at times removed her from the facility so her family could care for her personally.
Assistant County Attorney Kevin Miller raised several objections to the direction of the questioning, prompting Irby to respond, “What we’re going for, judge, is that we don’t think he (meaning Wittnebel) mismanaged the funds.”
After raising a third objection to the questioning from Irby, Miller said, “Either enter an Alford plea, or we should set this for a different type of hearing.”
Wittnebel then reaffirmed his intent to enter the Alford plea, and a pre-sentence investigation was ordered by Judge Carlson. A sentencing date of April 23 was also set.
Both Irby and Wittnebel declined to comment further following Monday’s proceedings, stating that they would prefer to wait until the matter is settled.
Charlie Ramstad, city attorney for Lake Park, said the city will have no comment on the matter until the case reaches final disposition.