Travelers in anguish after agent's arrest

Published Dec. 30, 1992|Updated Oct. 12, 2005

A cruise around Hawaii seemed like a well-deserved, happy ending to a year marred by health problems for Joe and Angela Schwartz.

But the Port Richey couple never made it on the SS Independence, and instead are spending their holidays distraught over the possibility of losing nearly $5,000. Like many other Pasco County residents who planned trips with Peggy's Tours and Travel, the Schwartzes are struggling to get their money back _ or at least get some firm answers.

"That's a lot of money. We've been saving a long time for that money," Joe Schwartz said, pointing to the $4,870 check Peggy's received and deposited Sept. 25. The Schwartzes paid an extra $130 for cancellation insurance, and for health reasons, they did have to cancel in October. But despite repeated assurances from the agency, they haven't been able to get their money refunded. "We've been getting the runaround."

Peggy's has offices in Port Richey, Elfers and Spring Hill. But anyone trying to get answers from the agency this week was out of luck. The firm's owner, Hilda M. Cacciatore, was jailed Monday on fraud charges. The 52-year-old Spring Hill resident is accused of not paying a Missouri travel agency for more than $25,000 in services. Pasco deputies arrested her after Missouri authorities issued a warrant for her arrest.

Mike Zirbel, owner of Ozark Mountain Tour and Travel of Branson, Mo., hired a private detective to find her, he said, after he failed to get any money from Peggy's. Cacciatore had contracted with him to buy a package of lodging, food, accommodations and tickets for a 44-person tour of the Ozarks.

"She bought a package from us . . . and basically paid us with bad money," Zirbel said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

He's not the only one seeking money from Peggy's, which Cacciatore bought about two years ago.

Court records show various creditors are suing Cacciatore to recover debts totaling more than $75,000. And Tuesday, a line of local customers seeking refunds or answers started forming in the Peggy's Port Richey office.

Some spoke of paying money for bus tours, but finding their accommodations had not been paid for, as promised. Others spoke of paying thousands of dollars for cruises and learning from the cruise company that, in fact, no reservations had been made.

Al Cortis, who handles consumer complaints for Pasco County, said his office had received about 10 telephone inquiries about Peggy's early this week and has begun referring them to the attorney general's office.

Sheriff's Office spokesman Jon Powers said that, based on a complaint received Tuesday afternoon, the sheriff's economic crimes unit had begun investigating Peggy's.

"It's bad, and the longer she stays in business, the more people are going to get hurt," said Don Nicholas, who with his wife, Margaret, sold Peggy's to Cacciatiore two years ago.

Cacciatore, who late Tuesday morning was released from jail on $5,000 bail, said in a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon that she did not feel up to talking about the matter yet. However, she did say it was only a "mix-up" that will be straightened out.

"My main concern is making sure these people will be taken care of. . . . I know they will be," she said.

But Cecilia Bubrick said she has heard such assurances before. The 85-year-old woman is among many Pasco residents who have been using Peggy's for years, enjoying everything from its "Love Bus" tours of area Christmas lights to Las Vegas trips.

"We were very good friends. At least I thought so," Bubrick said.

When Cacciatore came to her in tears in June saying she needed to borrow $10,000 for 15 days, Bubrick didn't think particularly hard about it. "She was a close friend, and she was in need."

Bubrick has yet to see her money. Cacciatore did pay back an earlier $3,000 loan, and did write her a check a couple months ago, but that bounced. Cacciatore, she said, keeps offering excuses and assurances, but Bubrick feels she has been taken.

Court records show New Port Richey resident Virginia Tinsley loaned Cacciatore $40,000 that she's still trying to recover. Her lawyer, Thomas Mitchell, said his client has managed to take possession of one of Peggy's buses, which will be sold.

Other outstanding legal claims against Peggy's include nearly $30,000 from Commodore Cruise Line Ltd.; $3,142 from Regency Cruises; and $1,098 from Margaret Schneider of Pinellas County. Records also show the Florida Department of Labor and Employment Security has ordered Cacciatore to submit various payroll records, but Cacciatore ignored a subpoena.

Zirbel, of Ozark Mountain Tour and Travel, said he had never dealt with Peggy's until this year.

"We never had any reason to believe there would be a problem. She had, as far as I could tell, all the trappings of a successful travel agency. The letterhead, the memberships in the right associations, all of that. And in this business, if you have passed any bad paper on anyone else, word will spread very quickly," he said.

Florida has little regulatory authority over firms like Peggy's. The Department of Agriculture's Division of Consumer Services does have some oversight of travel firms, but consultant Lark Daughtry said problems arise because agencies registered with the Airlines Reporting Corp. are exempt from that oversight. ARC is a widely used service through which agents can issue plane tickets.

But ARC revoked Peggy's accreditation earlier this fall. Lloyd South, manager of financial recovery for ARC, said ARC seized the plates that enabled Peggy's to issue tickets. He said that he did not know how much money Peggy's had defaulted on for plane tickets, but that it has been paid back.

Cacciatore said she does not anticipate filing for bankruptcy.

_ Staff writers Roger Clendening II and Robert Keefe contributed to this report.