LITTLE ROCK — Two high school marching bands were preparing for trips to Hawaii this summer when their travel agent suddenly stopped answering their phone calls and emails.
Now, the bands — one in Arkansas and the other in Missouri — are trying to recover hundreds of thousands of dollars they sent to the travel agent. Some of that money was raised by students, who sold candy bars and cheesecakes to help defer the cost of their trips.
The Southside High School Rebel Band in Fort Smith, Ark., canceled its trip to the islands after assistant band director Sean Carrier said the band wired more than $250,000 to the travel agent. They’re planning a trip to Orlando, Fla., with the money they have left.
Meanwhile, Chris Church, the band director at Willard High School in Missouri said his band’s trip is in limbo after they wired about $360,000 to the travel agent.
"I don’t have a flight schedule. I don’t have our confirmation on our hotels," Church said. "Could those airline reservations be there? Sure. Could those hotel reservations be there? Sure."
But he said there’s been a lack of communication with the travel agent, who finally emailed to him and the band directors at Southside after weeks of radio silence.
"He made an apology for being tardy in correspondence and he was in the process of repaying our money," Church said.
Carrier, the assistant band director in Fort Smith, said the travel agent apologized to them, too.
"I made some terrible decision with the money and am now in the midst of trying to sell every asset I have in Samoa to pay the group back," the travel agent wrote in an email to Carrier. "It will be a slow process so I beg of your patience as my number one priority to get every cent I owe to the group."
The travel agent hasn’t been charged with any wrongdoing, though band directors at both schools say they’ve been in touch with authorities. Federal prosecutors in both states refused to say whether they looking into the travel agent’s actions.
"We cannot confirm or deny the existence of any pending investigation," Conner Eldridge, the U.S. Attorney in the Western District of Arkansas, said in a statement.
No criminal charges have been filed against the agent, but the Arkansas Attorney General’s office says a parent has filed a consumer complaint, the Southwest Times Record reported in Saturday’s editions.
The travel agent didn’t respond to emails seeking comment. The phone number listed on his website wasn’t accepting calls.
"He has more or less disappeared," Carrier said.
Both bands had worked with the travel agent on successful trips to Hawaii before. The Southside band traveled to the islands in 2006 and 2009, while the Willard band went to Hawaii in 2004 and 2008.
"That’s why this is such a big shock," Church said.
The Southside students, who play songs including Lady Gaga’s "Bad Romance" during football season, were planning to perform something a bit more reverent when they visited Pearl Harbor. They would have seen how pineapples grow and sunbathed on the beach.
"Everyone waits since their seventh grade year to go to Hawaii," said Hannah Lovins, a high school senior who plays the flute and sold cheesecake to pay for part of her trip.