Travel agent facing felony charges

A Warner Robins travel agent is facing felony charges in a botched cruise for a local church group.

Betty Bearden, 64, owner of Sophie's Travel Agency, was arrested Monday on 33 counts of theft by conversion, said Sgt. Al Elvins, an investigator with the Houston County Sheriff's Office.

She is accused of taking $35,761 in payments from a group of families from Shirley Hills Baptist Church for a cruise but never paying the cruise line for the tickets.

The families found out just days before the cruise left without them that they did not have tickets.

The cruise was intended by the Shirley Hills families to take about 30 graduating high school seniors as a last chance to be together.

Although 90 people were set to take the cruise, Elvins said the 33 felony charges stem from one count for each family.

Representatives of the group first went to the sheriff's department July 16 after they learned they did not have tickets for the cruise, which was to leave July 20. But the group held off on pursuing criminal charges to give Bearden time to refund the money.

Monday morning, their patience apparently ran out and they requested that criminal charges be filed. Later in the day, Elvins asked Bearden to come to the sheriff's department for questioning, he said, and she was taken into custody.

The travel agent was being held in the Houston County jail without bond Monday. Elvins said he wasn't sure when a bond hearing might be held.

Lisa Hudson, parent of one of the students who was supposed to take the cruise, said the group decided to pursue criminal charges after failing to get any response from Bearden.

"We are kind of backed into a corner," she said. "We just feel like we don't have a choice."

Bearden had earlier told The Telegraph that she "didn't abscond with any money."

Though she declined to go into details, she said the trouble resulted when the bill for the tickets came in higher than expected, and she canceled the tickets. Carnival Cruise Line, however, disputed that allegation. The cruise line said it canceled the tickets because of nonpayment.

The graduating seniors did get a chance for a trip together before they were to split up for various pursuits, Hudson said.

On the four days they were supposed to take the cruise, members of the group went to Panama City, Fla.

The young people took it all in stride, she said.

"They just wanted to be together and they were together, and they had the time of their lives," she said. "I never heard a negative word out of any of them. They are just the most wonderful group of teenagers. Not a single one of them has said a negative word about her (the travel agent) or about what has been done to them as a group."

Hudson said the group is willing to drop the criminal charges if the money is fully refunded.

"It's sad," she said. "It's not what we wanted to do. We hate we are doing it, but we are all in agreement we don't have a choice."