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Travel troubles grow

February 02, 2000|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

Hagerstown City Police still hadn't determined Wednesday whether there will be a criminal investigation into complaints that vacations booked through CW Travel in Hagerstown aren't being delivered, according to Hagerstown Police Lt. Gary Spielman.

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Police have heard of hundreds of people, through individuals and group representatives, who claim to have paid the agency for travel arrangements that don't exist, Spielman said.

Those complaining include a Hagerstown bride-to-be who invited her wedding guests on a group cruise, a Fairplay NASCAR fan who planned a Las Vegas weekend trip around a big race and a Falling Waters, W.Va., businessman who got family members and friends to piggyback onto a Martinsburg, W.Va., travel club's cruise deal.

Based on information from the organizers of those group packages, roughly 480 group members paid more than $230,000 for trips they won't be getting.

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Spielman said complaints have come in from a mix of individual clients and group tour members claiming to have purchased cruises, airline tickets and various other travel arrangements from CW Travel without delivery.

The travel agency's owner said Wednesday that he's "totally in the dark" about the circumstances that prompted a flood of complaints and the status of travel arrangements that weren't delivered.

Michael M. Pishvaian said he was an absentee owner and left oversight of the agency to Rebecca Price, the agency's general manager, whom he hasn't been able to talk to about the matter yet.

"Until I know what's going on, I can't even say what's going on," said Pishvaian, who said he has repeatedly tried to contact Price since he found out Friday that there was a problem with airline ticketing at the agency.

Pishvaian said he decided to permanently close the travel agency, at 29-33 E. Washington St. because of all the problems.

He said he's turned over all the information he has and is letting police sort out what happened with the travel arrangements people claim to have purchased through the agency but haven't received.

Hagerstown resident Jennifer Nelson said she and her fianc, Norm Long, invited all of their wedding guests along on a Caribbean cruise leaving the day after their April 8 wedding.

Nelson said she asked Price, a family friend, if she could get a group rate.

The $700 per person price - later discounted to $550 - was so good, about 140 wedding guests booked the cruise through Price, Nelson said.

Each guest paid at least $250 as a deposit, she said.

After learning about the agency's problems, Nelson said she called Royal Caribbean Cruises and was told the reservations exist but no payment has been made for any of them.

She also was told the cost will be much higher than the $700 she was promised would cover the cruise and airfare to and from Puerto Rico, she said.

"You cry and you scream and you yell and you holler - it's not going to make any money come back," said Nelson, who said she's questioning whether the wedding will go ahead as scheduled. "Who's really festive at this point?"

Rodney Miller said members of his group have told him they don't blame him for cancellation of the Las Vegas trip he organized for them through CW Travel.

Still, Miller said he's troubled by the fact he turned over their $399 payments for the trip, which was supposed to include airfare, hotel, transfers and tickets to a NASCAR race, to Price and can't reimburse them.

Ninety-two people were in the group, he said.

"I've been heartsick. I haven't been able to sleep," Miller said.

Miller said he hasn't been able to contact Price since Jan. 25, when he turned over a check for $16,695, made out to the travel agency, to cover the balance.

He said he talked to Pishvaian on Tuesday and was told he didn't know anything about the package.

Failure to carry through with a promise made in return for payment isn't necessarily a crime, according to Spielman.

Certain elements, including a motive of personal gain, would need to exist, he said.

"We're not 100 percent sure there was any personal gain for anybody at this point," Spielman said.

The department's first priority is to determine how it came to be that people are short travel arrangements they claim they paid for, he said.

Police have been interviewing people, including Pishvaian, Price and alleged victims, and following a voluminous paper trail, Spielman said.

He said police interviewed Price for the first time on Wednesday. She was cooperative, he said.

The Herald-Mail's efforts to reach Price for comment have been unsuccessful.

A local telephone listing for Price wasn't available. Several messages left on her cellular phone answering machine Tuesday and Wednesday were not returned.

If it's determined that a criminal investigation is warranted, the Maryland Attorney General's office, which has greater resources for financial investigations, could take over the case, Spielman said.

In that event, all names of alleged victims and contact information would be turned over to that office, he said.

Carlson Wagonlit Travel in Hagerstown fielded about a dozen inquiries Wednesday from concerned people who confused it with CW Travel, Carlson Wagonlit owner Belinda Stull said.

A mix of people who had booked travel with the other agency and Carlson Wagonlit customers, they probably were confused because the two agencies have the same initials and are both on U.S. 40, Stull said.

The two travel agencies are unrelated, she said.

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