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2 women sue dance studio for damages

Two elderly Hernando County women, who prosecutors say were swindled by a now-defunct Spring Hill dance studio, have sued the franchise headquarters for damages.

As three men accused in the alleged ballroom dance scheme await trial on criminal charges, attorneys for the women filed a civil suit Friday against Miami-based Fred Astaire Dance Studios Inc.

The suit alleges that the company, through either negligence or indifference, allowed the instructors to defraud their students.

They have asked for a jury trial, seeking an unspecified amount of damages, attorney fees and court costs. The women, whose names are being withheld for their privacy, are among several bilked out of a total of more than $1-million, prosecutors say.

Charles Alva Bulloch, Randall Bryant and Paul Harper (also known as Michael Redmond) ran a Fred Astaire franchise in Western Way Plaza in Spring Hill from 1988 to 1991. They promoted it in advertising fliers as "The Happiest, Friendliest Spot In Town."

During that time, those three and several other dance instructors allegedly persuaded elderly women, usually widows, to spend thousands of dollars on lessons and travel packages. The instructors in that alleged ballroom dance scam were charged with exploiting the elderly and grand theft. Some got probation in return for a promise to testify against their former bosses.

Bulloch and Bryant remained in Hernando County Jail without bail Tuesday, awaiting trial on their charges.

Harper eluded authorities for months before he was arrested in Texas. He now awaits trial in St. Louis on similar charges. When Harper's business in Missouri is finished, he will be sent to Hernando County for another trial.

Another Fred Astaire Dance Studio has since opened in Spring Hill and was not involved in these incidents.

The suit alleges that officials at the dance studio headquarters in South Florida failed to check the backgrounds of the franchise operators. If they had looked, they would have found that Harper already had been charged with fraud and exploitation of the elderly.

The local dance instructors refused to give one of the women a refund for more than $14,000 she invested in dance lessons after a cardiologist told her she was not healthy enough to continue, the suit alleges. They also refused to give the second woman the money she had applied toward trips to New York City and St. Petersburg and a hot-air balloon ride.

The parent company in Miami lists in its franchise agreements a requirement to refund money to students who withdraw, especially for medical reasons. The company takes in a percentage of each studio's earnings as franchise fees.

The suit alleges that Fred Astaire Dance Studio Inc. "should have known that its franchisee was committing these fraudulent acts and ratified those acts by its acquiescence and indifference. . . . (It) perpetrated this fraud, profited from this fraud, and promoted this injustice."

A 1989 Federal Trade Commission ruling demanded that Fred Astaire Dance Studio corporate executives keep track of their franchises. But in the case of the Spring Hill operation, Fred Astaire failed miserably, said James Martin, an attorney representing the alleged victims.

"Obviously, we think (the studio headquarters) committed the wrong," Martin said Tuesday. "There was certainly an obligation to monitor the agreements and the people working for them. Fred Astaire is putting them out under their good name. They should be more cognizant of who they allow to instruct."

Officials in the Miami office of Fred Astaire Dance Studios did not return calls for comment Tuesday.