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updated: 4/8/2014 6:01 PM

Employee charged with theft from Lake County philanthropist

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  • Beverly Benson

      Beverly Benson

 
 

A philanthropist and a member of one of the most prominent families in Lake County was the victim of identity theft and financial exploitation by an employee, authorities say.

Although officials won't provide the exact amount, they say John Cuneo Jr. could have been exploited for up to $100,000 by a Lake County woman who was responsible for overseeing various banking accounts, including a company credit card that was to be used for business purposes only.

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However, the defense attorney for Beverly Benson, 57, of the 23000 block of Erhart Road in unincorporated Lake County near Grayslake, said she "will be found innocent in court when all the dust settles."

"There's a whole bunch of different issues that will come out when the trial takes place," defense attorney Barry Boches said. "It's not as black and white as the state claims."

Benson is expected to stand trial in June on charges of aggravated identity theft of a person over 60 years of age, four counts of financial exploitation of an elderly person, and theft of more than $10,000 but less than $100,000, authorities said.

If found guilty of the most serious charge, she could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.

Benson remains free from Lake County jail after posting the required 10 percent of her $50,000 bail.

Cuneo is well-known in Lake County for being the son of printing magnate and commercial real estate developer John Cuneo Sr., who lived in an estate built by utility tycoon Samuel Insull near Milwaukee Avenue and Route 60. That land was later annexed into Vernon Hills and became known as the Cuneo Museum and Gardens.

Benson was working as an administrative assistant for Cuneo, Lake County Assistant State's Attorney Scott Turk said. She also was renting a house from and paying rent to Cuneo, Turk said.

Between May 1 and Dec. 31, 2012, Benson stopped paying rent, had a utility bill on the house she was renting transferred to Cuneo's name, and used the checkbook and credit card for purchases beyond the scope of her job authority, Turk said.

Court records show Benson was arrested and charged March 26, 2013, and was indicted by a Lake County grand jury in September. She pleaded not guilty to the charges the next month.

Boches said Cuneo's advanced age is causing him to have memory problems.

"He is an elderly gentleman who didn't always remember things correctly," Boches said. "It's not clear that these things took place without his permission. I'm convinced she isn't guilty of anything."

The Cuneo family had vast land holdings in the area, many of which were developed to include Westfield Hawthorn shopping center and the Gregg's Landing subdivision.

In 1991, the Cuneo family home was opened as the Cuneo Museum and Gardens. The home, gardens, and collections were later donated by Cuneo Jr., and his wife, Herta, to Loyola University. The donation was estimated to be about $50 million, while some of the land is estimated to be worth $1 million an acre.

The gift in 2009 came with a guarantee the museum and gardens would be managed and maintained by Loyola for 20 years.

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