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Benefit for 'dying' Park Rapids victim may have been a swindle

When Douglas County Sheriff's Sergeant Dave Ahlquist went to the home of Penny Jo Haupt, the former treasurer of a charity established on her own behalf, Haupt's boyfriend had a warning, according to court records.

Steve "Red" Douma told the investigator it was a "bad idea" to try to speak to Haupt now, because her Multiple Sclerosis and recent brain surgery had left her in a weakened and unresponsive state, court documents said. It was, after all, the reason motorcyclists and sympathetic donors had given donations to the tune of $6,000 for her care in what the donors were told were the final days of her life.

Ahlquist went anyway, and introduced himself to Haupt, who was confined to a hospital bed placed in the living room of her mobile home, court documents said. She was barely able to speak and was only able to muster a confused look. Her head was bandaged, and she had little to offer as far as responses.

But Ahlquist pressed her about missing funds in the account, and gradually, her mood switched from confused to defensive, court records said. Soon she was out of the hospital bed, sitting at her kitchen table, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and talking normally as she detailed the events of the Motorcycling for Mobility event held in her honor in Rose City, Minn., at Sheila's Place, in Douglas County. She told Ahlquist she had exaggerated the total take of the fundraiser, and said the total receipts she bragged about on Facebook of $9,864 were about double what was actually raised. Court documents said he also admitted she and Douma had intermingled personal funds in the charity's account at an Eagle Bend bank.

A Douglas County court complaint detailed what came next: "In the middle of the interview, Haupt stood up and dramatically ripped the bandage off her head and announced that she had lied, and admitted that she did not have brain surgery. Haupt added that she had faked medical issues because she was worried that Douma would leave her. ... She stated she never had MS."

Haupt, 50, who now lives in Park Rapids, was charged March 15 in Douglas County District Court with theft by swindle, and theft -- temporary taking, both felonies.

Her next court appearance was set for Monday, April 11.

Suspicions of trouble

"Even within the world of bikers, when reason for suspicion is brought to light, it is taken seriously," Kelly Harris said.

Bob Harris, chairman of the 2010 Motorcycling for Mobility Ride, and Kelly Harris, treasurer for the 2010 event, became suspicious when the dollars and cents from the 2009 charity event did not add up.

According to Harris, several discrepancies were discovered. That's when Bob and Kelly Harris, along with a select few other individuals, launched an investigation. They began by doing investigation work on their own, in spare time. They began with bank records, then a criminal check revealing part of Penny Jo Haupt's background. Haupt's criminal record includes multiple convictions of wrongfully obtaining public assistance, food stamp fraud and theft by swindle.

According to the complaint filed by Brad Lake, Chief Deputy of the Douglas County Sheriff's Department, bank records from the 2009 Motorcycling for Mobility checking account show that numerous checks were written for various personal expenses.

After reviewing bank records, Ahlquist concluded that Douma and Haupt did open a checking account in the name of Motorcycling for Mobility, that at least $6,001.30 was deposited in the account and that $3,726.15 was spent in support of the ride; a shortage in funds from 2009 remains.

Kelly Harris said it is impossible to conclude any discrepancies involving cash.

According to the complaint, during Ahlquist's interview with Haupt, Haupt admitted that she had "taken out a loan" from the charity's checking account to pay personal expenses.

There are currently no charges against Steve Douma.

Not a typical charity

Bob Harris and Kelly Harris said that though the investigation of Haupt's involvement with the 2009 Motorcycling for Mobility revealed wrongdoing, the 2010 Motorcycling for Mobility Ride was 100 percent legitimate. The 2010 Ride raised enough money to donate $4,616.51 to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Several area groups and organizations sponsor legitimate charity events. The Harrises said most local charitable organizations are connected with a national organizations, and/or are registered with the Minnesota Attorney General and will be able to provide documentation of financial activity and charitable work to anyone concerned with its legitimacy.