Mystery in Menahga: Police investigate link between dead financial planner and local doctor
MENAHGA, Minn. (KMSP) - Last fall, a murder suicide in the small town of Menahga, Minnesota shocked the community.
Folks wondered why a grieving old man would kill his financial planner and then shoot himself.
The family of one of Mike Callahan’s clients has questioned the financial planner’s motives and the motives of his associate, Vern Erickson, a local doctor in the near-by town of Park Rapids.
One of Erickson’s patients is Betty Roberts--another former client of Mike Callahan, the man who was shot dead by 82-year-old Carl Albin.
Roberts, 92, and her late-husband Jim lived on a farm near La Porte, Minn. They didn’t always have a lot of money, but at some point Jim inherited it from his mother. Friends said it was millions.
Jim loved to play the stock market and told a friend and fellow trader he’d made $3 million at one point.
Jim talked of leaving his property to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where he had gotten care.
At some point, the Roberts asked Callahan, an insurance agent turned-financial planner, to help them with their finances.
Long-time family doctor, Vern Erickson was also named Betty’s power of attorney, along with Callahan.
Just four months before he was murdered, Callahan was interviewed by police after a theft he had discovered at Robert’s house. He told police he was responsible for Betty’s finances, along with Erickson.
“He and I are the trustees for the estate, to handle everything,” he said to investigators. “Dr. Erickson is my doctor and personal friend. He’s also Jim and Betty’s doctor.”
Arthur Caplan is a national known Medical Ethicist from the New York School of Medicine. He does not think a doctor should be a trustee of an estate--unless it’s a family member--especially if the patient is vulnerable.
“I would be extremely concerned,” he said. “I would be worried, 'Is this patient was really trying to use a doctor to try to guide their healthcare and to guide their financial world?' Why merge the two?”
Erickson’s attorney told the Fox 9 Investigators that “doctors and lawyers can have friends”. Brad Person is the lawyer who wrote the power of attorney agreement between Erickson and Jim and Betty Roberts.
"It’s a close personal relationship and that is the reason for the power of attorney, not the fact that it is her doctor, I don’t see what is wrong with that," he said.
Boundaries between Betty Roberts and Erickson have always been fluid.
“He is the one who takes care of me because I am trying to get everything settled,” Betty said. “He’s my best friend."
Roberts’ family and friends said they started to worry about the arrangement with their folks after Jim died in 2016, pointing to vulnerable adult reports they filed on Betty’s behalf in the spring of 2017. Nine months later Callahan was dead and that’s when Betty’s family really got worried.
“I’m desperately concerned,” said Betty’s step-daughter, Erin.
It was client Carl Albin who shot and killed Callahan and himself in his own home. Police searched Callahan’s house looking for an explanation of the unexplainable. They found a will showing that Callahan had complete control of Albin’s estate and filed a court claim saying he may have taken some of Carl’s assets through “fraud, illegal activity and duress."
When police searched Callahan’s house, they seized all of the documents he worked on related to the estate of Albin.
They also found and took Betty’s checkbook. In fact, the application police wrote for the search warrant is clear: they were interested in Dr. Erickson's links to Callahan, in addition to Callahan himself.
The application ties Callahan to Erickson, and reads, "They both work with elderly folks." It also lists serious concerns reported by family and friends about the relationship between both men and Betty. As power of attorney, they had a lot of authority over her.
The Fox 9 Investigators found a power of attorney form at the Hubbard county courthouse, signed by Betty in September 2015.
Her family knew Betty and Jim had made both Callahan and Erickson her power of attorney, but didn’t know that in the event of her husband's death, the men would control everything from Betty's property transactions to beneficiary transactions, business and banking transactions. It also let them give themselves gifts without accounting for them.
“That is shocking," Erin said when shown the paperwork. “That is very shocking.”
The things listed in the paperwork are usual for people named power of attorney, but Betty’s family says that’s not the role of a doctor.
“It’s very concerning,” Erin said.
The medical ethicist agreed.
“I think physicians and nurses are setting themselves up for big trouble if they accept this role of financial decision maker,” said Caplan.
Eight months after signing the forms, Betty's husband died. The family concerns about Erickson’s treatment appeared in the search warrant application.
“He had some heart issues,” Erin said. “He had a doctor that wanted to take him off of his heart medicine.”
Erickson told Jim the medicine wasn't safe to take over a long period of time.
“He just wasn't quite sure about that," Erin said. "I asked him to please talk to his cardiologist. My next conversation was that he was off of them and doing great, he said he just had to eat healthier. I still wanted him to see the cardiologist. Then I was very surprised less than two weeks later to get a call from our neighbor saying my dad had a massive heart attack."
Erin said Betty was devastated.
The search warrant application reads, “Betty Roberts’ care is of much concern, especially after James Roberts died shortly after Dr. Erickson took him off of cardiac medications prescribed for him by Dr. Chris Anderson, Sanford Health Bemidji, upon referral from the Mayo Clinic.”
Fox 9 met Erickson at his health clinic one morning to ask him about the concerns of Betty’s family.
Erickson did not respond to the question; if the search warrant was correct about the heart medication.
Erin said her father was cremated immediately, and it's unclear whether a medication change caused or even contributed to Jim’s death. Fox 9 did not get access to his medical records to confirm the claims in the search warrant.
Boundaries protect everyone, especially a doctor.
Don't mingle the two roles, Caplan said.
Eight months after her dad died, Erin reported Callahan and Erickson to adult protection. Betty was staying at Callahan's house instead of a nursing home recovering from surgery. According to the report, Betty was being “manipulated” and “isolated."
A social worker talked to Betty and found she was "competent and not in need of services”--in other words, not vulnerable. According to letters written to Betty’s step-daughter, a second complaint is still under investigation in both Cass and Wadena counties.
Sarah Waybenais lives across the road from Betty and said she heard Betty she didn’t like going to Callahan’s home. She often didn’t get to sleep in a bed.
“I say, 'Betty, is it your wish to stay there?' she said, ‘No, but I don't have no choice,'” Weybenais said.
After one visit to Callahan’s, Weybenais said Betty was crying and shaking.
Another neighbor video recorded a conversation with Betty about her relationship with Callahan. The neighbor has known her for years and is a former police investigator.
“I’m gonna tell you something--not tonight," Betty told the neighbor. "It’s going to piss the hell out of you.”
When he asked her if the “will thing” was bothering her, she replied, “yea,” but added, “I’m too nervous today."
Later, she told the neighbor Callahan had taken her to a lawyer to see about changing their trust to include Erickson as a beneficiary.
The Fox 9 Investigators tracked down that lawyer. He said Betty seemed vulnerable and that a red flag went up for him. Betty never came back.
Betty described to her neighbor what Callahan did at his home, about a week after the meeting. He was again video recording the conversation.
“He said, 'Now, have you decided what you are going to do? Are you going to give the ground to the Mayo, maybe that ain’t the exact words, to Dr. Erickson or are you going to give it to the Mayo?'" Betty said. "I said, 'I don’t know what you’re talking about.'”
Betty has given the same details to several family members and friends about Callahan trying to get her to sign several pages of documents.
“Then he puts this in front of me early in the morning, like seven in the morning, meaning he wanted me to rush into it that morning," she said. "He was all ready with the pencil and everything. You think maybe I was going to die that morning or something."
She said she hadn’t actually read the documents.
“Dang people are not going to rush me into nothing," she said. "I’m a slow mover and I ain’t going to rush into giving anybody anything."
When Callahan was shot, Waybenais said she was relieved for Betty’s sake.
But did Erickson, who is now in charge and stood to benefit, after all, know about any of this?
Betty said Erickson was not in any of the meetings she had with Callahan.
When Fox 9 asked Erickson if he knew Callahan was pressuring Roberts to leave Erickson property in her trust or will, Erickson did not answer the question.
But Callahan told police before he died, on the recording about the robbery, that he told all to Erickson when it came to Betty’s trust.
“Everything I do I share with him,” Callahan said to investigators.
Erickson told Fox 9 that Betty’s farm is still going to the Mayo Clinic and said that Betty has nothing that he wants.
Betty told the neighbor that during another visit to Callahan’s, just two months before he died, she had set aside a portion of her farm to Erickson. She was vague on the details.
“This is her farming area," Waybenais said. "Beyond that first fence that goes east and west she said she had to give Dr. Erickson that land."
“That’s not part of any document I’ve created," Person said. "That’s all I can say.”
Betty’s last visit to Callahan’s house was just two months before he died at the hands of a man who, by all accounts, he’d been bullying.
Leah Crow, Betty’s friend, said Betty called to ask her to come and get her from the house.
“She said, 'You need to come and get me, they’re keeping me here and they won’t let me go,’" Crow said.
After she took Betty, she got calls from Callahan and Erickson asking to bring Betty back to Callahan’s residence.
According to Crow, Betty wanted to stay at her own home that night.
Then, Callahan called the Sheriff’s office.
According to the deputies’ report, Callahan showed him the documents that gave him and Erickson complete power of attorney control over Betty's financial and healthcare well-being and property.
“Since then, the locks on the house have been changed and the family is not allowed there,” Erin said.
Betty’s family alerted police several times and a detective interviewed Betty.
In one of the recorded conversations between Betty and the detective, he asked Betty if she trusted Callahan. Betty replied, “As far as I know, yes."
“If you're not worried, I'm not worried,” the detective said.
He later wrote: “I do not believe this to be a law enforcement issue.”
Erickson’s attorney said Betty’s family is attempting a money grab and there’s nothing to suggest her family tried to get Betty to change her trust leaving the farm to the Mayo Clinic. They did send a letter to Erickson asking for a summary of Betty’s finances.
“If you’re doing the right thing, there’s nothing wrong with accountability,” Erin said.
“There is an absolute ethical duty to be as transparent as possible,” said Caplan.
Dr. Erickson’s response was to file a petition in Hubbard County Court. He wanted to be named Betty’s guardian. The petition said Betty is vulnerable because she has dementia.
When Fox 9 asked Erickson if he thinks it is a conflict of interest to manage the finances of a patient, he did not answer the question but said he is not manipulating Betty.
In 2012, the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice disciplined Erickson for giving multiple patients excessive amounts of pain medications and for failing to keep good records of prescriptions.
Betty's family was surprised to hear that her neighbor witnessed Erickson bringing her medicine to her home, already dosed in a pill reminder box.
“He said, 'Betty, I brought you your medicine,'" said Waybenais. "He said, ‘all fixed it up.'”
“Sometimes physicians think out of friendship, convenience, it's easier to bring a particular patient medicine, not in the prescription bottle. That’s not the way to do it,” said Caplan. “You don't make any exceptions and you shouldn't. Safety is the predominant issue when it comes to taking medicines.
Patients should always be aware of what they are taking. If they have a side effect and are brought to the hospital and say I took X, I took Y.”
The search warrant lists Erickson giving Betty unknown medicine from a ziplock baggy as a reason for searching Callahan's house. Police have not searched Erickson's home or practice.
"We're are actively looking into criminal charges,” said Sheriff Tom Burch from Cass County. "And it is quite complex, doing everything we can with it and our intent is to come to a conclusion whether it is criminal or civil."
One of the things police looked for at Callahan’s were copies of deeds for property Erickson owns and may have gotten from his own patients. Fox 9 could not tell from the search warrant if they found the deeds.
The Fox 9 Investigators scoured hundreds of pages of property and tax records in three Minnesota counties.
Erickson now holds deeds to more than a thousand acres in Hubbard County alone. That land is worth more than $3 million.
The county breaks land into parcels. By the Fox 9 count, Erickson holds 19. At least a half-dozen bought from patients, according to surviving family members. Some of those also were neighbors or church members.
Erickson bought a house from Jewel Bebensee and her husband. She and her late husband were patients of Erickson's. He also invited the couple to join his church, which they did.
“Oh, he’s a wonderful man, and he’s also a Seventh Day Adventist," she said. "He’s responsible for us becoming a Seventh day Adventists."
In 1994, a single woman named Jeanette Beardsley sold her home in Park Rapids to Erickson. She continue to live in it until she died in 2006.
County tax records show the house was worth $45,000. According to the deed, he paid less than $500 for it.
Erickson signed Beardsley’s death certificate and her funeral was held at Erickson's church. The property transfer was notarized by Erickson's friend, the now dead Mike Callahan.
Betty, meanwhile, is now in a nursing home--but she sees Erickson often.
“He sees that I go to church, sees that I have groceries,” she said.
Betty goes to church when she feels up to it. Erickson is what you might call a lay preacher at the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Park Rapids.
The day Betty invited Fox 9 into her room at a Park Rapids nursing home to talk to her, staff called Erickson. He cut the interview short.
But Erickson’s days of complete control over Betty have come to an end.
Nearly everyone who cares about Betty gathered at the Hubbard County Courthouse on Tuesday, Feb. 28.
Erickson asked a judge if he could be her conservator and guardian, which would have left him in charge but with a judge overseeing future decisions.
“When there are any questions about someone’s finances through a conservatorship it’s out in the open,” said Person, Erickson’s Attorney.
But before the hearing could happen, Erickson and Betty’s step daughter, Erin, agreed to share decision-making power in Betty’s case.
“I want her to be at peace," Erin said. "I just want the truth to come out."
Due to the decision, Betty might at least get to go back to her farm for her 93rd birthday--which is in a few weeks.
“She defiantly wants to go home, have a party on her birthday and have a beer," Erin said. "A beer’s a great incentive."
Minnesota's Medical Licensing Board told Betty's family it is looking into Erickson again. He told police he could lose his license over what he called the Roberts family's "ridiculous allegations."