Indy-area travel agent accused of taking money, not booking trips

Indy-area travel agent accused of taking money, not booking trips

Nearly 100 would-be travelers from at least seven states, including Indiana, claim an 84-year-old tour company operator from Crawfordsville, Ind., dashed their hopes for vacation memories of a lifetime after she failed to book their trips or return their money.

Responding to local newspaper advertisements placed by Mary Alice Barbee, owner and operator of Premier Tours, touting trips to Alaska, Nova Scotia and other locales, the mostly retired and semi-retired trip-seekers paid on average $1,800 per person for the trips. But as the travel dates drew closer, her customers say communication with Barbee grew sparse, or in some cases, ended. In June, court documents show Barbee filed for bankruptcy — the third time in 14 years.

“She’s a crook,” says Lafayette, Ind., resident Sherry Frey, an experienced traveler who booked a trip to Alaska through Premier in 2011 to celebrate her 45th wedding anniversary. “What she has done is a criminal act. She’s stolen money.”

To date, Barbee faces no criminal charges, but Georgia King, another would-be Alaska traveler from Monticello, Ill., lodged theft and fraud complaints with her local police department, as well as the Crawfordsville Police Department, which is investigating, according to Det. Sgt. David Long. “I can’t speak for the prosecutor, but to me it’s criminal ... it’s fraud,” he says. Montgomery County Prosecutor Joseph Buser declined to comment on whether charges will be filed against Barbee, citing the ongoing investigation.

Complaints from King and others also prompted an investigation by Illinois State Attorney Dana Rhoades, who says she’s recommending the case be turned over to the FBI to be managed at a federal level. “Because it crosses so many state lines, [a case] would just be cleaner if brought by the U.S. Attorney’s office,” Rhoades says. Tim Horty, spokesman for U.S. Attorney Joe Hogsett, declined to discuss the likelihood of that happening.

In April, the Indiana attorney general filed a lawsuit against Barbee accusing her of violating the state’s Deceptive Consumer Sales Act by accepting money from 10 consumers who paid for vacations that Barbee never booked. The complaint calls for Barbee to pay $33,845 in restitution to the victims, plus more than $55,000 in fines. No hearing date has been set. At press time, AG spokeswoman Erin Reece reported her office had received 25 additional complaints from consumers. Reece says if the AG chooses to file another complaint against Premier, those consumers would be included at that time.

Too good to be true

“When I first saw her ad in the paper, I looked at it and thought, ‘That price is too good to be true,’” says Frey, a victim listed in the AG’s suit. “I thought I was pretty sharp ... so I called her and grilled her.” Frey says Barbee provided reasonable responses — including why she needed the nearly $3,700 fee so far in advance. “She said, ‘Tourism is down because of the economy. I was able to get a half price deal, but it’s only good until such and such a date,’” Frey says.

Frey and her husband, along with 26 other frustrated consumers, attended an Aug. 8 court hearing in Indianapolis on Barbee’s latest bankruptcy — a filing that left many of her customers seething and some local experts questioning its legitimacy. “I’d like to see this lady do jail time,” says Berne resident Lucinda Miller, who also booked an Alaska trip. “Eighty-four or no 84, she knew exactly what she was doing. We want our money back.”

South Bend, Ind., resident Jolene Hanna hopes to find answers as to why a nearly $400 check her husband wrote to Travel Guard — a separate company the Hannas believed was to provide insurance for their failed Alaska adventure — was deposited by Premier Tours at Hoosier Heartland State Bank in Ladoga, Ind. The Hannas’ check shows the word “Premier” written above “Travel Guard,” but Hanna says the couple didn’t authorize the addition. Ray Claycomb, the Bank Secrecy Act officer at the bank, says employees are following procedures regarding the situation, but declined specifics citing the secrecy act — a decades-old law intended to fight money laundering. “We’re aware of [the check] and we’re working on it,” Claycomb says. “We’re doing everything we can.”

Some who booked the 2011 Alaska trip say they received a call from Barbee asking if they’d agree to postpone the trip until 2012, due to what Barbee described as difficulties with contractors, such as bus or ferry companies. Most agreed to wait one year for one of two trips in June or August.

As the dates for the June trip grew closer, customers including King say communication with the tour operator grew sparse, or in some cases, stopped until they received a letter on June 14 from Barbee, telling them that she’d called off the trip due to a bad economy in Alaska and trip cancellations by other customers. “I’ve had to make some tough decisions,” reads the letter that Barbee sent to victims, which they provided to Angie’s List Magazine. “We cannot go to Alaska at this time.” In addition to claiming that she unsuccessfully tried to obtain refunds for her customers — a claim she restated at her August bankruptcy hearing — Barbee also referred to the 2002 death of her husband and her own ongoing health problems in the June letter, as well as mentioning the death of her son in a November 2011 letter previewing the first 2012 trip. “I plan to do justice to you all,” Barbee wrote.

Travel plans never materialize

After Barbee canceled the trip, King says she began calling vendors with whom Barbee claimed to have done business. She says she learned no tickets had ever been reserved in her name on Alaska Air, nor had any reservations been made at The Totem Inn, the hotel that Barbee claimed to have reserved for the group of would-be travelers in 2011 and again this year, King says.

Lisa Hamel co-owns The Totem Inn in Healy, Alaska, roughly 10 miles from Denali National Park — one of the proposed tour stops, according to Premier newspaper ads. Hamel says she and her husband bought the property in December 2000 and since that time neither Mary Alice Barbee, nor anyone representing Premier Tours, booked rooms at the inn. “The last time she called was in 2008,” says Hamel, who handles bookings for all large groups at the hotel. She says Barbee called her two weeks before a planned trip in 2008, but Hamel declined to consider the reservation request. “When people plan things at the last minute, that is an unhappy tour and we don’t want unhappy travelers — they give bad reviews.” She says Barbee’s customers called, seeking information about the trips they booked. “I really felt for those people,” Hamel says.

Local experts say sympathy may be the only thing Barbee’s customers receive. Stephen Maple, associate professor of business law at the University of Indianapolis, says Barbee’s customers must prove she intended to take their money without providing any services in order to convince a judge not to discharge Barbee’s June bankruptcy. When a bankruptcy is discharged, most debts are forgiven. No date has yet been set for the next hearing in Barbee’s bankruptcy case. AG spokeswoman Erin Reece says as of Sept. 11, Barbee had not voluntarily disclosed records requested at the hearing, so the AG subpoenaed them. “You could argue that she is really setting up these [trips] to defraud the creditors,” Maple says.

History of financial trouble

Barbee’s recent troubles follow her 1998 Chapter 13 bankruptcy filing with husband, Hal; a 2002 Chapter 7 filing; and a 2008 decision by a Carroll County judge ordering Barbee to refund fees and pay court costs for nine Premier customers who paid for trips that never happened. Judge Donald Currie ordered Barbee to pay $10,664, which she did in 2009.

Nicholas Georgakopoulos, a law professor at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis, says many bankruptcies are discharged. But in Barbee’s case, discharging three in 14 years may be a stretch. “That’s pushing it,” he says. “It seems unusual.” And Georgakopoulos adds he thinks it unlikely that Barbee’s age would affect a case, if one were brought. “I believe that age does not matter,” he says. 

Copies of the bankruptcy filings show three case numbers and creditor records, and the AG’s office is treating them as three separate filings. However, Barbee and her attorney, John Bymaster, maintain the June filing is only the tour operator’s second bankruptcy, arguing the two previous filings were converted to one. Currently, Barbee’s debts total more than $175,000, according to the June bankruptcy documents. But that doesn’t include refunds sought by individuals who have filed at least 20 small claims cases against her, primarily in Montgomery County, resulting in nearly $36,000 in judgments, court records show.

During the August court hearing, Barbee blamed the trip cancellations and lack of customer refunds on the downturn in Alaska’s tourism trade. She claims a bus company went out of business, forcing her to forfeit some $10,000 she paid for transportation for the tour. She also claimed during the hearing that hotels and a ferry company she booked for the tour have refused to refund the money she paid, resulting in her inability to refund her customers.

News of Barbee’s latest troubles didn’t surprise Attica resident Joan Koekenberg, who booked a trip through Premier with her husband, John, to Nova Scotia in the early 2000s. The trip never occurred, she says, and the couple became creditors in Barbee’s 2002 bankruptcy filing. Koekenberg says the couple became suspicious when their departure date drew close and they lacked information. “We called about it and she said, ‘Everything is going to be all right, I’ve just had some physical problems,’” Koekenberg says.

Still, Koekenberg says they probably fared better than most. To make up for the $1,800 the couple paid, Barbee took them on several small tours including to Holland, Mich., Pella, Iowa, and Nashville, Tenn. “There always seemed to be a disaster,” Koekenberg says. Bus breakdowns, tour gaffes, missing lunches — they say they saw it all. “Because we had so many problems with her, we said, ‘Never again,’” Koekenberg says.

Outside the court in August, Barbee — alert, speaking clearly and willing to answer questions — reiterated that a struggling economy caused her troubles. “The economy is the big thing,” she told Angie’s List Magazine. “I can’t see my way clear right now.” Bymaster, Barbee’s attorney, declined to comment, other than to say Barbee deserves full bankruptcy relief. 

But her victims aren’t buying it. Connie Meek, a retired vocal music teacher from Crawfordsville who’s listed as a creditor in Barbee’s bankruptcy, paid $7,085 in January for the August Alaska tour that also never happened and a Rose Bowl trip Barbee says will still occur, though Meek is doubtful. Meek says despite having taken a trip booked by Barbee last winter to Hawaii, she feels the tour operator violated her trust, which outweighs everything. “She goes to church — I know this lady. She’s lived in Crawfordsville her whole life,” Meek says. “She’s not telling the truth. It’s devastating. We’ve paid our money and we’ve nothing to show for it.”

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