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Bilked by agent, ND family loses nest egg

FARGO - On a dairy farm in Barnes County, Keith Radke's parents toiled for 25 years to save for retirement and send their son to college. They were proud, frugal people who paid their bills on time and skipped vacations to milk the cows, he said.

But then Jeffrey Neppl, the trusted Fargo businessman they had known since 1997, stole their nest egg, bilking Louverne Radke out of tens of thousands of dollars before the 91-year-old widow died in June 2008.

Keith Radke said Monday he doesn't believe Neppl has "the will or the wherewithal" to repay the money. But he took some solace in the fact the 57-year-old is going to prison.

"Great. Wonderful. He deserves every minute," Radke said Monday after Judge Wade Webb sentenced Neppl to three years in prison and five years of supervised probation in Cass County District Court.

Prior to sentencing, Neppl pleaded guilty to three felony counts of misapplication of entrusted property for duping Louverne Radke and two other women out of $209,372. He was ordered to pay that amount in restitution.

Attorneys said the amount could have been higher had the statute of limitations not run out on the Radkes, who prosecutors say lost $340,000, far more than the $29,000 Neppl pleaded guilty to stealing from the family.

Investigators alleged that Neppl stole a total of nearly $520,000 from his clients.

Neppl, who ran an insurance business, Jeffrey Neppl Agency, as well as a car dealership called Imports Plus and a transport service for the elderly and disabled called Care-A-Van Inc., admitted to cashing out his victims' annuities or directly depositing their checks and investing the money into his struggling businesses.

Louise Skalicky said her mother trusted Neppl to help her financially, and "at the time, there really were no red flags." She said she was "flabbergasted" when an investigator from Bismarck called and said her mother's $118,000 policy had been wiped out.

Neppl's other victim was a relative of his who gave him two checks totaling $50,000 to invest in annuities. Neppl told investigators he invested the money in vehicles.

Speaking in court Monday, Neppl's voice trembled as he read a prepared statement that was also included in a letter he submitted to Webb last week.

"I have shamed myself, my family, my friends, and most of all the victims," he said. "If I could only go back and have done what was right at the time I could have prevented all this. I am sorry for what I've done to these wonderful families. I've hurt them more than can be imagined."

Fargo Police Detective Mark Voigtschild said it was the largest and most egregious case of financial fraud he has worked on.

Assistant State's Attorney Cherie Clark recommended that Neppl be sentenced to five years in prison.

Neppl's attorney, Monte Mertz, asked for a 90-day jail term with work release to allow Neppl to implement his plan to repay the $209,372 in restitution.

"Sending Mr. Neppl to prison would do them more harm than good," he said.

The judge said while the chances of making restitution decline with prison time, Neppl's crimes warrant penitentiary time.

"Whether he was in a tight spot or not, this was not his money to use," Webb said. "He did not milk the cows." Webb said he also hoped the sentence makes others think twice before engaging in financial fraud, which he said seems to be on the rise.

Because Neppl otherwise has a clean criminal record and the crime is nonviolent, Clark said he probably will be deemed a low-security prisoner and be eligible for parole within a year. His victims will be allowed to speak at his parole hearing, she added.

Attorneys said under a change in North Dakota law that took effect Aug. 1, a three-year time limit that came into play in the Radke case wouldn't have been an issue. The change allows the statute of limitations to begin when the suspected wrongdoing is uncovered, as opposed to within three years of the crime itself.