The Maplewood Police Department recently closed an investigation into the Rev. Rodger Bauman, an Oakdale priest who accepted a $120,000 check from a 99-year-old former parishioner. Bauman has maintained all along that the money was a gift. He eventually returned it.
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No charges were ever filed. But the circumstances surrounding the money raised concerns among the man's caregivers, the woman serving as his power of attorney and a police detective, who investigated Bauman on suspicion of swindling a vulnerable adult.
The man who wrote the check, Lou Dziengel, lived in an assisted living home in Maplewood. He got around with a walker, wore two hearing aids and, by at least one account, was rough around the edges.
"Very stubborn. He wanted things his way," said the woman who served as his power of attorney. Her name has been redacted from police reports, and MPR News has agreed not to identify her. "There was a certain way to do things, and a certain way you didn't do things."
The woman said Dziengel, a former Army soldier who served in World War II and received a Purple Heart after surviving imprisonment by German troops, according to the White Bear Press, was particularly stubborn when it came to his finances. He insisted on keeping two blank checks in his wallet — he would use them on trips to the store for lunch meat, bread or batteries for his hearing aids.
But in December of 2011, Dziengel wrote a check that went way beyond those expenses. The woman who served as his power of attorney was reviewing Dziengel's bank statement when she noticed a check withdrawn in the amount of $120,000.
"I was just shocked. I couldn't believe what had happened," she said. "So then I took the check copy and his bank statement to him, and I said, 'Lou, you gave this check to Rodger Bauman. Was this what you wanted to do? And he says, 'He's not supposed to cash that check.'"
Police said Bauman held the check for two and a half weeks before he deposited it into his own personal bank account. The next day, he wrote checks to eight people, totaling $40,000. Seven of the eight had the last name Bauman.
Bauman still serves as pastor of Guardian Angels parish in Oakdale, and declined to be interviewed for this story. The day he received it, Bauman wrote his former parishioner and Dziengel's longtime girlfriend a note saying he was "truly moved" by the gesture.
But to Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell, accepting the money was inexcusable.
"The conduct and the behavior itself is concerning and disturbing. We have a vulnerable adult, we have a person who [is] in a position of authority, certainly a person of significant influence in another person's life," Schnell said. "And to be given $120,000 and not to have some gut check about that? It just seems unusual."
Bauman's attorney, Paul Engh, said the priest and Dziengel had known each other for several years. Dziengel was a parishioner when Bauman was pastor of St. Mary of the Lake in White Bear Lake.
Engh said in a statement that the priest "considered the check a gift coming from an old friend." According to police reports, Dziengel told the detective Bauman was supposed to split the money between himself and some charities. In a different police interview, Dziengel said Bauman was going to use the money to start a new church.
Bauman's attorney notes that Bauman repaid Dziengel in full.
But police records show that the priest returned the money only after an employee from the Maplewood care center filed a complaint to report her suspicions.
Dziengel and his longtime girlfriend were living in the facility's memory-care unit because she had been diagnosed with dementia and Parkinson's disease.
But it was clear to the woman who served as his power of attorney that his mind, too, had begun slipping several months before he wrote the check. When interviewed by the detective investigating the case, he had problems concentrating and couldn't say what year it was.
A doctor who examined Dziengel weeks after he wrote the check found that he displayed "significant impairment in cognitive ability, particularly with short-term memory and executive functioning. He appears to be in need of assistance with medical and financial decision making."
Lou Dziengel died about four months after writing the check. That was a blow to Ramsey County prosecutors, who believed they would have had a better case if Dziengel were alive to take the stand.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said state law presumes residents of a care facility are vulnerable adults. But Choi said there are other factors that would have come into play. His prosecutors wrestled with how to prove whether the priest exercised "undue influence" on Dziengel.
"You can have a perspective about it, but ultimately you have to prove a case where all 12 jurors are going to agree ... that the facts we have prove the criminal violation beyond a reasonable doubt," Choi said.
Choi's office declined to file charges in March of last year. The Maplewood detective continued to work the case until a couple of months ago. Jennifer Haselberger, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis' former top church lawyer, became familiar with the case. She said Bauman refused to resign after archdiocese leaders confronted him about the money. Haselberger says she urged Archbishop John Nienstedt to remove Bauman from his pastorship, or at least place some restrictions on his duties and warn parish trustees.
But as far as Haselberger knows, none of that happened.
"Bauman is still pastor of that parish to this day," she said. "And so unfortunately, as I saw happen too frequently, once the threat of his arrest was removed, life just went back to normal."
The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis would not elaborate on the Bauman case, saying that it is a personnel matter. But spokesman Jim Accurso said the church did not remove Bauman because police never determined he had exploited Dziengel.
"The gentleman insisted — he gave the money to Father Bauman," Accurso said. "Father Bauman returned the money."
Dziengel never had any children, but was twice-married and twice-widowed — and proposed many times to the girlfriend he lived with until his death, according to the woman who served as his power of attorney. The former prisoner of war told the White Bear Press that God saved him so he could take care of others.
Editor's note: Mike Cronin contributed to this report.