WILLMAR - A Pennock woman accused of financially exploiting a relative with dementia has entered an Alford plea to the crime and will be sentenced next month.
Melissa Gay Bengtson, 52, faced three felony counts of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult. Under the terms of an agreement filed Wednesday in Kandiyohi County District Court, she will enter an Alford plea to one of the charges, while the remaining two counts will be dismissed.
Under an Alford plea, a defendant does not admit to committing a criminal act but acknowledges that he or she would in all likelihood be convicted if the evidence is presented at trial.
Bengtson, also known as Melissa Gay Zwart, is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 31. The plea agreement calls for a stay of imposition, under which she may be eligible to have the felony conviction reduced to a misdemeanor if she complies with all terms of the sentence. The agreement also calls for her to pay $19,000 in restitution.
Charges were filed earlier this year after it came to light that Bengtson had failed to pay the bills on behalf of a relative who was in a nursing home in Willmar with dementia. According to the criminal complaint, the nursing home bill was $33,000 in arrears.
A review of financial records showed that the individual's bank balance had dwindled to just a few hundred dollars. Numerous cash withdrawals also were discovered.
An emergency guardian appointed in February 2017 reported to investigators that Bengtson, who until then had held power of attorney and was the designated health care agent for the relative who is the alleged victim, was "intimidating and difficult to work with."
Bengtson allegedly had to be evicted from a farm home owned by the relative, where Bengtson had been living. A house in Pennock owned by the relative was allegedly emptied of its contents. Bengtson also reportedly had been using the individual's vehicle for her personal use.