SPRING HILL — Silvia Pinto was one of dozens who were shocked when Hollywood Tours suddenly closed last month, canceling her bus trip to Miami and taking her money.
She called herself a victim. Said the whole thing was a scam.
The Hernando County Sheriff's Office disagrees.
Detectives say they found no evidence that the Spring Hill company did anything illegal when its owners declared bankruptcy and canceled numerous bus trips for hundreds of paying customers.
"To the contrary, it seemed like they did everything that they could to save their business and their reputation," said Detective Dustin Mormando.
Here's how authorities reached that conclusion:
After the business closed, deputies fielded numerous complaints from customers who said they had been wronged. They launched an investigation. Investigators took 64 reports from the more than 400 customers who were owed money.
To show any illegal activity, authorities said, they would have to prove the company took money knowing it would not provide the services.
Mormando spoke with owner Garrett Bode, a chiropractor from Oldsmar, his attorney and the bankruptcy trustee who is overseeing the case. Bode owns the company with his wife, Nina, who is its president.
The Bodes bought the company in June as a moneymaking venture, Mormando said.
Shortly after buying it, they discovered the business was losing more money than it was making.
Mormando said the Bodes injected about $50,000 of their own money over the course of less than five months.
"They tried making it work until the very end," he said. "They did everything they could to try and save it."
In mid November, they decided they couldn't do it, he said.
"They didn't know a month ahead of time," he said. "They went to the very end."
Moreover, he said the owners still left money in the business's bank account. They returned checks that had been sent to them after Nov. 12. They paid their employees.
Mormando estimated the company has about $50,000 in assets and about $140,000 in liabilities; it was bonded for about $35,000.
That means they can cover about $85,000, Mormando said.
Customers will get some of their money back, but shouldn't expect to get more than half, he said.
Pinto said she doesn't really believe it.
She said the company took her and another family member's checks just two weeks before they closed.
"There's no way they didn't know they were in the red," she said. "They can fool the law, but they can't fool me."
While some customers might still blame the current owners, the Bodes point a finger in a different direction: the previous owner, Jeff Hogan, Mormando said.
"The Bodes definitely feel like they were scammed by the prior owner as far as believing that the business was going to make them money," he said.
In a statement from Elena Ketchum, the bankruptcy attorney for Hollywood Tours, she said the Bodes were devastated the business failed and that they didn't better handle the notification of their customers.
"While more facts will come out in the process, when the owners recently purchased the business, there was more indebtedness than expected," Ketchum wrote. "The owners have invested thousands of dollars of their personal money and liquidated personal assets trying to get the company on its feet but can no longer maintain the level of investment required to fulfill the commitments to Hollywood Tours' customers."
Hogan, the former owner, sent an email in response to inquiries from the Tampa Bay Times, saying he ran a successful business for seven years and served more than 10,000 customers.
"A due diligence was conducted by the new owners and money was taken off the sale price to offset the cost of any outstanding trips sold," he wrote.
No complaints have been filed with the Sheriff's Office against Hogan.
Danny Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1432. Tweet him @HernandoTimes.