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Man accused of swindling ag association pleads not guilty

WILLMAR -- The 65-year-old Atwater man accused of swindling the West Central Ag Sales Association pleaded not guilty Thursday.Robert Craig Starz was charged in February in Kandiyohi County District Court with three felony charges of theft by swindle.

WILLMAR - The 65-year-old Atwater man accused of swindling the West Central Ag Sales Association pleaded not guilty Thursday.
Robert Craig Starz was charged in February in Kandiyohi County District Court with three felony charges of theft by swindle. He is accused of stealing more than $50,000 as treasurer of the agri-business group.
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.
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.
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.
At Thursday’s hearing, Starz’s attorney Ralph Daby met with assistant county attorney Stephen Wentzell and Judge Donald Spilseth off the record in chambers. No negotiation or plea agreement discussion was conducted on the record, and not guilty pleas were entered.
Starz is not in custody. He’s next set to appear at a June 6 pre-trial hearing.

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