Damages awarded against WR travel agent

WARNER ROBINS — Teri Faust’s plan for a special family reunion and cruise with her husband, who was deployed overseas, and two children was dashed in summer 2008.

Faust booked a four-day cruise to the Bahamas through Sophie’s Travel Agency with more than 30 families from a local church. Most of the families were taking the cruise to celebrate a son or daughter’s high school graduation.

But the cruise never materialized and the travel agent left them high and dry.

Sara Betty Bearden, 66, who operated the travel agency on Moody Road, was convicted in October of taking money but failing to deliver on bookings.

Faust sought relief Wednesday in Houston County Magistrate Court to recoup $1,945 and the $98 court cost.

“The cruise for us was meant to be a happy celebration for him coming home,” Faust told Magistrate Judge Angela Sammons on Wednesday. “But we lost our money.”

In all, 33 families, including Faust, and all affiliated through Shirley Hills Baptist Church, booked the trip — with about half filing civil lawsuits in Magistrate Court seeking a total of $26,383.34, said Lisa Hudson, who organized the trip.

The first grouping of those cases were heard Wednesday, with the others scheduled for Monday and March 24.

“We filed only for what she owes us,” Hudson said outside of the courtroom. “We just want our money back — not a penny more.”

Hudson sought the $2,235 her family lost and the $98 court cost.

Sammons awarded judgments to all the families in court Wednesday afternoon for the amounts requested, which Hudson said totaled $12,146.34. The lawsuits were filed against Bearden and her daughter, Sophie Bearden, who was not charged criminally.

Carl A. Veline, a Warner Robins attorney representing mother and daughter in the civil lawsuits, said that Sara Betty Bearden acknowledged that those were the amounts owed. The mother took over the business when the daughter became ill, Veline said. Hudson said the lawsuits included the daughter because her name was on the business license.

During the court proceedings, Hudson asked the judge if she could ask Bearden a question, and Veline said he did not object to that.

“Where is my $30,000 from my closest and dearest friends?” Hudson asked Bearden.

Bearden said in court that the group did not understand how the travel business works and that there was an issue with the cruise line.

Bearden disputed the amount that Hudson said the cruise line had kept in default of the trip. Hudson said only $4,795 was kept by the cruise line.

“I did not pocket their money,” Bearden said during the court proceedings.

Outside the courtroom, Veline said that there were some “extenuating circumstances” regarding the cruise line that he expected would come out at Bearden’s final sentencing hearing but that Bearden had “stepped up to the plate and entered a plea.”

In October, Houston County Superior Court Judge George F. Nunn ordered Bearden to pay $59,408.20 in restitution after she pleaded guilty to 47 counts of felony and misdemeanor theft by conversion. The botched bookings ranged from a family reunion, to a honeymoon trip, to a high school senior trip.

Nunn issued a preliminary sentencing for Bearden of three years in jail and 12 years on probation. The judge also ordered a pre-sentencing report for Bearden and may reduce the sentence to as low as 15 years probation based on her health and age if the sentencing report finds she qualified for a probated sentence.

The final sentencing hearing is scheduled for April 8 in Houston County Superior Court. Bearden is free on bond pending sentencing.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.