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Katherine Grandstrand, Forum News Service, Published March 08 2013

Dickinson woman accused of deceiving Billings Co. man out of $594,577

DICKINSON, N.D. - Accused of swindling a Billings County man out of more than a half-million dollars over the course of five months, a Dickinson woman is facing 10 counts of felony theft by deception.

Cynthia Ell, 38, pleaded not guilty Thursday in a preliminary hearing at the Stark County Courthouse in Dickinson to three Class C felony counts and seven Class B felony counts of theft. The alleged victim is Raymond Hecker of Fairfield.

From July to November last year, Ell solicited a total of $594,577.67 from Hecker, according to the state’s criminal complaint.

Dickinson Police Department Officer Nicholas Gates, the only person to testify at Thursday’s proceedings, alleged that Ell put misleading ads in The Dickinson Press and Bismarck Tribune in July after opening a benefit account at Gate City Bank to help pay for medical costs related to a surgery and to the premature May 2011 birth of her ninth child, a daughter named Emercyn.

The ads caught the attention of Hecker, 79, a religious bachelor who lives on his family’s farm in Billings County, said Gates, who was on the stand for nearly two hours.

“Hecker didn’t want to go to hell for not helping,” he told Jim Hope, assistant Stark County state’s attorney, the prosecutor for the state.

Gates said Hecker cited a specific Bible story, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In the story, a rich man refuses to help the beggar Lazarus, who dies and is sent to heaven by the angels to Abraham. The rich man dies and is sent to hell.

At first Hecker offered $1,500 and wrote in the memo line of the check, gift for the poor, said Brenda A. Neubauer, Ell’s attorney.

Gates said Hecker considered less than $40,000 of the nearly $600,000 a gift. After that, Ell allegedly requested loans from Hecker saying she was getting a large settlement, anywhere from $3 million to $7 million, from Sanford Health for a botched surgery.

Ell had been in contact with Sanford Health, but had not filed official legal action.

Hecker began including an IRS number on his checks, Neubauer said. This is usually done when charitable donations are going to be written off. Loans are not eligible for tax deductions.

During this time, Ell allegedly purchased or helped purchase seven vehicles, including a 2013 Chevy Malibu, a 2013 Lincoln Navigator, a 2012 Jeep Liberty, a 2013 Chevy pickup, a 1999 Jeep, a 2001 Jeep and a 2006 Humvee.

While there were checks written to dealerships from Ell, several of the vehicles were purchased under her children’s names, who obtained financing in some cases.

Ell had allegedly told Hecker that she had cancer, that her youngest child needed surgery, that her husband was going to kick her out and that she was having car trouble and needed the money for these things, Gates said. To obtain a check written on or about Aug. 29 for $166,827.67, Ell allegedly told Hecker she needed to purchase her half of a the home she shared with her husband so he could not kick her out in the event of a divorce.

Bank records indicate that no extra payments have been made on that mortgage, Gates said.

Ell filed for divorce from her husband, John, on Dec. 14 in Burleigh County. A voluntary dismissal was filed Tuesday in that case.

The issue was first brought to the attention of DPD by Ell’s sister and sister-in-law, Gates said.

DPD was concerned the ad that Ell placed misrepresented her living situation, Gates said. While Ell is the mother of nine children, she only has primary custody of the youngest. Her ad said the baby was born “last May,” but was unclear if the July 2012 ad meant May 2012 or 2011.

While Ell is not the primary parent of the children from her first marriage to Kevin Theurer I, she pays child support and has time with her children, Neubauer said. The term “last May” was open to interpretation.

Neubauer was also concerned that neither DPD nor the prosecution had obtained medical bills or insurance records to see if Ell had outstanding balances or was covered under John Ell’s insurance.

Through Hecker’s nephew Ike Hecker and the Billings County Sheriff’s Office, DPD made contact with Ray Hecker in November and informed him that the money he had been giving Ell was allegedly not going to help with medical bills and related expenses and other necessities that she said it was going to.

A warrant for Ell’s arrest was issued Nov. 30. Ell was arrested Dec. 1 and appeared in court via ITV at a Dec. 3 bond hearing, where her bond was set at $50,000 due to the amount she allegedly took and concerns that she may flee.

Neubauer asked that all but $15,000 be returned to Ell, but Judge Cynthia Feland felt that Ell still posed a flight risk and denied the request.

The money used to post bond may be funds Ell obtained from Ray Hecker, Hope said.

Feland determined there was probable cause and allowed the prosecution to move forward. A pretrial conference and trial date have yet to be set.

Hope wanted to set aside five days for the trial.