Retina LaValla swallowed a handful of her father’s painkillers when the law caught up to her.
Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota, charged LaValla with a pair of theft felonies for turning a $30,000 GoFundMe campaign for three drowned men into her personal piggy bank. As deputies read her rights to her, LaValla started fading from the overdose and was put on a helicopter to a hospital where medics revived her.
But hours before the suicide attempt and arrest, Lavalla posted a note entitled “Before I go…” on Facebook and dumped 191 photos of her 5-year-old daughter from happier times among a slew of hateful messages attacking her for allegedly taking advantage of a tragedy.
“I’ve loved more than have been loved in return,” she whined. “I’ve tried to continue on, to continue to fight. But sometimes that fire just goes out. Mine has been gone for a long time.”
LaValla apparently started off as a good Samaritan two days after Justin Haugtvedt, 22, Cody Ostendorf, 24, and Keith Ayers, 28, vanished after their 16-foot boat capsized in Lake of the Woods during a freak overnight storm on Oct. 3. She said she had close ties to the three men, but several friends and family members told the The Daily Beast she exploited those ties to turn a profit.
Within weeks LaValla raised almost $30,000, but Keith Ayers’s mom never heard of her or the GoFundMe page until she came to Baudette, Minnesota, to find him.
“There were people coming up to me and they were concerned about all the money; especially that she was the one hosting it,” Carol Derosky told The Daily Beast.
LaValla’s “friendliness and fun” didn’t win her over.
“When I met her she gave me a hug,” Derosky said. “There wasn’t any feeling behind it. It was more like a sigh then a hug.”
When Derosky and her fiancé chartered a boat to go looking for her son, LaValla asked to join but then spent the entire time fishing.
“I was offended by that,” she said.
Text messages to Derosky reviewed by The Daily Beast show LaValla was playing a long con.
At first, LaValla said the disappearance of her friends forced her to “go back and get on my [anti] depressants and anxiety medicine since all of this has happened.”
Then she boasted about chartering boats to look for the men and even consulting with psychics. One of them told LaValla to “watch for three fireflies” and offered some random coordinates and to also be on the lookout for “the number 12.”
As the search wound down, Derosky told LaValla that she needed “to finish Keith’s affairs,” so she asked for money from the GoFundMe account to square away the “meals and gas accounts for people who have helped.”
LaValla started getting dodgy about forking over the money to the family members, then said she couldn’t.
“I had planned on bringing you a chunk of cash today so I have it for you on Monday and I can bring extra for what’s owed to them,” she texted.
Instead of cash, LaValla tried to comfort.
“It breaks my heart to know you are at a loss… Sadness is a minute [sic] word to even use right now. So much heartache. No matter what I will continue to be here for you. To listen, to talk whatever you need” before writing she was “praying” for “the best outcome possible.”
LaValla blamed delays on screwy cellphone service to job woes to her daughter for distracting her.
When some of the money finally came, LaValla handed it over to Derosky in cash sums worth $900, $1,200, $2,000, and a $500 cashier’s check.
“Why was she paying me in cash?” Derosky said. “That made me very suspicious of her.”
The GoFundMe page was yanked after the company “investigated and removed” it due to “fraudulent activity” and the company in a statement proceeded to ban LaValla’s account outright. A GoFundMe rep cautioned that only 1/10 of 1 percent of its campaigns “involve questionable activity” and prides itself on its “anti-fraud engine technology.”
The relatives still short thousands of dollars, the mother gave LaValla an ultimatum to come clean.
“I told her I was going to call the sheriff. I think she assumed I wasn’t going to do it.”
Initially, when investigators quizzed LaValla she denied wrongdoing, providing spreadsheets and checks she cut to the victims’ families “so she could wash her hands from all of it,” the sheriff’s report claims. Pressed further, she came clean to the investigator that she had dipped into the donations.
LaValla said she’d turned the GoFundMe money into her personal checking account, according to court papers. In addition, she said she couldn’t account for most of the proceeds from a fishing pole auction intended to finance the boat search.
Having spent $7,000 from the GoFundMe account, LaValla secretly took an equal-sized loan from her father. She told deputies a sob story about her hours being cut at the Wigwam Resort where she worked because the lake’s freeze came on late last year and that she “had bills piling up.”
Attempts to reach Retina, who has been hospitalized since the suicide attempt, were unsuccessful.
Her father Lloyd told The Daily Beast he’d bailed out Retina this time as he’d done after past lapses. “In my eyes she made things right when I gave her the money to take care of it so the people got their money.
“But the error was already made.”
This time the dad who had been his daughter’s last line of defense, essentially her enabler, admitted that she’d dug too deep. “Right now Retina has to get help from someplace,” the elderly farmer told The Daily Beast of his daughter. “There’s got to be something that triggered this.”
Only after she learned she might “lose custody of her daughter” did LaValla become contrite and admit she used the cash “for various bills and groceries.”
According to the sheriff’s report, “Retina stated over and over that she was going to pay it back eventually and the families ended up getting paid so it was no big deal.”
But it was.
“I gave her the benefit of the doubt,” Derosky said. “She told me her father was sick in the hospital, and I had sympathy for her but she was bullshitting me and everyone else.”
“Retina doesn’t have a very good past here,” Bonnie Janicke, a friend of all three boat victims and longtime Baudette resident, said. “Local people were suspicious when she was the one to start the GoFundMe page because she has had troubles in the past involving money,” Janicke, a 49-year-old waitress, said.
Janicke remembers LaValla cozying up to relatives. “We watched her one by one spend time with each family,” Janicke said.
LaValla first latched onto Justin “Huggie” Haugtvedt’s family, Janicke says, Cody Ostendorf’s parents came next before “she went after Keith’s [Ayers’s] mom.”
It was Justin Haugtvedt’s funeral where his uncle Jim Haugtvedt remembers meeting Retina LaValla for the first time.
She was one of more than half of the 1,500 residents from “Huggie’s” hometown of Warren, Minnesota, who attended his Oct. 15 funeral at the Our Savior’s Lutheran Church.
“I met Retina at the funeral,” the 50-year-old grain elevator assistant manager said. “The GoFundMe page was already up by that point. I don’t know where the two-faced part came into play. But I’m pretty upset myself about the whole thing.”
He said LaValla’s actions stain his nephew’s memory.
The uncle described “Huggie” as a young man whose ambition was to become an electrician and who had the “kindest heart in the world.”
“He lit up people’s lives,” his uncle said. “If you had a flat tire or needed an oil change he would stop what he was doing and fix it for you and never charge anything.”
Like Ayers and Haugtvedt, Cody Ostendorf was also described as an expert outdoorsmen who adopted Baudette, Minnesota, a small hamlet just south of the Canadian border, as his new home.
Ostendorf “started from the bottom,” his best friend Cody Birdsall, 24, said. He “never went to school,” but his love for hunting and fishing and apprenticing to his missionary father gave the tireless worker a promising future.
In Baudette, he joined his friends Ayers and Haugtvedt as an ice guide.
On the night they drowned after logging a full day of cabin construction on Flag Island they had boated 15 minutes away to Oak Island, where they enjoyed a hearty meal and some drinks at the Sunset Resort.
Just after midnight they hopped back onto their boat and attempted to navigate what appeared to be high waters.
“They went to the resort on Oak Island for a supper and a couple beers and they probably didn’t think the water was as rough as it was because the boat was only a 16-foot Crestliner,” Jim Haugtvedt said.
“I think they thought they knew more about the lake that night than they did,” he said. “They must have thought, ‘We’ve done this a hundred times before so we just need to get around the bend and we’ll be fine.’”
All of the life vests had been found on the overturned boat—meaning the estimated 6-foot crests crashed without warning.
“We’re thinking it was a rogue wave that hit their small aluminum boat,” Keith Ayers’s brother, John Derosky, said, noting that he’d evaluated surveillance video footage from the Sunset Resort and believes his brother “was not intoxicated.”
“They took a little too long to leave and the weather was picking up and got worse and by the time they got in the water the waves were too powerful.”
Cody Ostendorf’s friend Cody Birdsall agreed. “They knew the lake and they were in just too small a boat for that kind of water.”
Derosky hadn’t seen his brother in person since they buried their dad a year before in April.
Ayers and his younger brother chatted on the phone, and that’s how he learned of the news that he’d become engaged.
And when search parties managed to fish out Justin Haugtvedt and Cody Ostednorf’s bodies from the lake, Ayers was still out there, somewhere.
To this day only Ayers’s Carhartt windbreaker, his hat, a shoe, and pants have been found.
But no body.
“We grew up in the woods and both me and my brother are survivalists,” John Derosky, 25, said. “The fact that we found his shoe, his hat, and his jacket leads me to believe he was shedding everything; that he tried to get out.”
Not being able to say goodbye to Keith has left his mother and brother emotionally insolvent.
When word spread that his best friend Cody Ostendorf was missing, Cody Birdsall rushed to join the search. “The first couple of days you hope they made it to an island and are trying to survive,” Birdsall said. “But then you realize after time passes that you’re searching for a body at that point and hoping to bring your friend home.”
Out of the many traits that quantify Cody Ostendorf you can’t forget his laugh. “He had the strongest, biggest laugh I have ever heard,” Birdsall mused. “Whether it was hanging with a friend or he was on the road him laughing always sticks out.
“He was a big teddy bear.”
LaValla arrived in Baudette, Minnesota, trying to outrun her past.
She had been fighting an addiction to painkillers, a close family member said, and had to turn to her dad four years ago when she allegedly duped an Alcoholics Anonymous fundraiser in Carrington, North Dakota.
LaValla had to attend mandatory group treatment meetings as part of her penance for multiple DWI convivtions. During these group meetings, she apparently bragged about “stealing the thousands of dollars and then when she went in front of the judge it was ‘Poor me.’… I believe the girl is a habitual liar,” said a witness, who requested anonymity.
Beyond the alleged AA underhanding LaValla was pretty much run out of Carrington. She was accused of bilking both a gas station and a Subway sandwich shop, a close family member claimed.
When the register routinely came up “$50 or $100 short the manager started asking about it… She just up and quit—said she couldn’t take the stress anymore,” the relative said.
Then a pregnant Lavalla, according to the court papers, served as a bookkeeper at the family’s local construction firm, and between September and December in 2010 “she wrote out to herself,” checks worth thousands of dollars, according to the complaint obtained by The Daily Beast.
But the family member, who was one of the victims of the check-writing scheme, said the charges would have been more substantial if prosecutors in that case hadn’t waited until after the statute of limitations lapsed to file them.
“To this day I have no idea what she did with all this money… she was always broke and had no money,” the family member said.
Just like the GoFundMe scheme, she confessed remotely. “She did it through text messages to me,” the relative said.
And she claimed she’d needed the extra money to buy (you guessed it) “groceries or pay off bills.”
But the bills and the groceries were not being bought by LaValla, the relative assured.
“I was paying for the groceries by using my debit card. I have no idea how she could say that.”
“Keith liked to keep to himself and liked to enjoy life,” John Derosky said of his brother, who grew up in Hookstown, Pennsylvania, and left home to start over in Baudette, where he managed to keep people safe by flagging hazardous ice areas for fishermen.
“He was going to be 29 years old in May,” his brother, a Cisco network engineer, said.
They have to wonder and wait for spring before they can return to the lake.
John Derosky refuses to chance anything when he returns to Lake of the Woods to recover his brother’s remains.
He's so determined, in fact, that he’s earning his diver certification.
“My brother is still missing and I plan on going back up there with my mother when the ice breaks and be part of the dive searches,” he said. “My thing is I appreciate all the volunteers but I don’t expect them to keep going and going.
“So I’ll go to the Lake of the Woods and I plan to be one of the few to get him out of there.”
The effort is risky for the father of two young children.
“I’m not supposed to dive more than 8-10 feet,” Derosky admitted. “If I dive too deep in the water my left eardrum will blow out completely.”
His well being weighs heavily on the conscience of his mother, Carol Derosky. She has reservations about her younger son’s emotions should he be successful in encountering Keith Ayers’s decomposed corpse.
“As a mother—that’s my burden—I don’t want my want my son finding his brother. I can find him and I can deal with that,” she said.
Despite the false hopes the mother has held onto her sense of humor. “I know my son’s fish food. I already know he’s part of the ecosystem,” she said.
She realizes her lost son wouldn’t approve. “If my son Keith were here he’d be looking at us like ‘You’re both crazy!’”
It doesn’t matter because Carol Derosky and her son are asking for a chance to let go on their terms.
“Even if I have him cremated and put it out in the lake, as redundant as it sounds, I will still have the closure I didn’t get to have.”