The case surrounding a Yakima man who has been missing for nearly three and a half years took an interesting turn Friday.

Larry Riegel, a disabled 57-year-old contract pilot, has not been in contact with his family since Christmas Day 2009. His face has periodically been plastered on billboards around town, and he was recently listed on the Project Jason missing-persons website. His family has offered $10,000 for clues about his disappearance.

Yakima police consider him a possible, if not probable, victim of foul play. And they consider his girlfriend, who was the last person to see him alive, a person of interest in his disappearance.

Against that backdrop, Riegel’s girlfriend, 51-year-old Ladena Mann, appeared by summons Friday in Yakima County Superior Court on felony welfare fraud charges linked to Riegel’s disappearance.

According to state welfare-fraud investigators, Mann used Riegel’s electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card several times in the weeks after Riegel’s disappearance for $1,503 in financial assistance, including groceries.

They said she also filled out an EBT-card eligibility form claiming Riegel still lived with her at her home in the 1500 block of South 12th Avenue, even though by then he had been missing for more than two months.

As a result, prosecutors filed three charges against Mann: first-degree theft (welfare fraud), second-degree perjury and false verification for public assistance. All three charges are felonies.

Mann, who is free on her own recognizance, spoke with the Yakima Herald-Republic after the arraignment and said she was unaware that investigators consider her a suspect in Riegel’s disappearance.

According to Mann, Riegel called several people — including his boss, whom she didn’t identify — in the first two months after his alleged disappearance.

Describing herself as “absolutely” certain Riegel is still alive somewhere, possibly in Idaho or Montana, Mann lashed out at his relatives, accusing them of having a vendetta against her.

She disputed claims the 6-foot-2 Riegel was physically vulnerable after having had neck surgery, and claimed his mother has suspiciously left town every Mother’s Day for the past three years.

“Right off the get-go, they started saying horrible things about me,” she said. “They didn’t have no reason to say those things ... It’s just snowballed.”

Riegel was an abusive drunk, Mann said, alleging he took off the night of Jan. 4, 2010, and hasn’t been seen since because he assaulted her that night and she got a warrant against him for domestic violence the next day.

As for why she used his EBT card, she said she always did the shopping and that she expected him to return home someday with his tail between his legs — and expecting food in the pantry.

“I’m the only one who ever used it,” she said of the card, adding, “I didn’t know when he was going to come home. ... I’m so stupid. I took him back every single time.”

In a brief interview earlier Friday, Yakima police Lt. Nolan Wentz confirmed he recently took over the missing-persons case following the retirement of the original detective assigned to it.

Wentz was hesitant to discuss the case in detail, except to say that investigators believe Riegel’s disappearance was out of character and to confirm Mann was the last person known to have seen him alive.

Asked if that made her a suspect, the veteran detective said, “The last person to see someone alive would certainly be a person of interest.”

Told of the charges against Mann, Riegel’s sister and family spokeswoman, Susan Riegel of Snohomish, emphasized the family continues to maintain a $10,000 reward in the case.

She also said the reward money is for information that leads directly to the recovery of her brother’s body.

“Let’s just say we’ve been waiting for justice for a long time,” she said. “And we’re hoping this (the welfare fraud charges) will kick-start something.”