Warner Robins travel agency leaves youth group high and dry, parents say

A church group in Warner Robins planned to leave this weekend to take graduating high school seniors on a cruise, but they said they found out that $36,000 they paid a travel agent for the tickets never made it to the cruise line.

About 90 members of Shirley Hills Baptist Church were set to depart for Cocoa Beach, Fla., on Saturday for a four-day cruise to the Bahamas on Carnival Cruise lines.

But early this week two men from the congregation went to the travel agency, Sophie's Travel in Warner Robins, and couldn't get an answer on why they didn't have their tickets, said Marsha Kenley, who was planning to take the cruise with her son.

The cruise line had accepted a deposit for the tickets, group members say, but canceled the tickets after the rest of the money never arrived.

Members of the group learned of that development after they contacted the cruise line themselves and were told the cruise is now booked and no tickets are available.

An attorney for the group gave Sophie's Travel until 5 p.m. today to refund the money, but then later agreed to extend the deadline to noon Friday.

Kenley identified the person running the business as Betty Bearden. She said Bearden is the mother of Sophie Bearden, the owner of the business. Sophie Bearden, Kenley said, has been out due to illness and her mother has been running the business.

Phone calls today to Sophie's Travel from The Telegraph were not returned. The office was closed this afternoon.

About 30 graduating seniors who attended the church but went to different schools were planning on taking the cruise, said Lisa Hudson, who had six members of her family set to take the trip.

There's little time to plan another trip now because many of the graduates are heading off to colleges around the country within a couple of weeks.

"Most of the people involved, they don't have money to go somewhere else," Kenley said.

Over the past year, those who planned to go on the trip have individually taken payments of about $500 per passenger to the agency, Hudson said.

"It's a bad situation," she said. "For some of these kids, it's their life savings. They've been planning for years."

Lt. Jon Holland of the Houston County Sheriff's Office, said a report has been filed with the sheriff's office but investigators were waiting to see whether the parties could resolve the dispute among themselves before proceeding further.

"It's not been labeled a criminal investigation at this point," he said late today.