Travel agent gets at least six months in probation detention center

PERRY — The operator of a travel agency who was convicted of taking people’s money for trips that never materialized was sentenced Thursday to serve at least six months in a probation detention center.

Sara Betty Bearden, 66, who operated Sophie’s Travel Agency on Moody Road, pleaded guilty in October to multiple counts of felony and misdemeanor theft by conversion and was ordered by Houston County Superior Court Judge George F. Nunn to pay $59,408.20 in restitution for the botched trips.

Nunn reserved final sentencing, which was Thursday, for the completion of a pre-sentencing report.

Nunn sentenced Bearden to 15 to 16 months in a probation detention center with the requirement that she serve no less than six months. She was also ordered to serve 15 years probation, with time served at a probation detention center to be included.

After serving six months in a probation detention facility, Bearden will be eligible for early release on the condition that the remaining balance of restitution is paid, Nunn said from the bench.

Since October, Bearden repaid $790 and brought four checks with her to court Friday totaling $30,000. That leaves a balance of roughly $28,618, Nunn said. He also included a repayment plan in the sentencing.

Bearden was taken directly into custody and is expected to remain at the Houston County jail until she may be moved to a probation detention facility for women.

More than 20 of the people — whose plans for honeymoons, family reunions and senior trips never materialized after paying Bearden to arrange the trips — filled the courtroom.

Lisa Hudson, who booked a four-day cruise through Bearden to the Bahamas for families affiliated through Shirley Hills Baptist Church to celebrate a child’s high school graduation, read a written statement on behalf of the families.

Unless Bearden immediately pays the full amount of restitution, Hudson told the judge that Bearden should have “some sort of punishment that will cause her to sit and reflect on what she has done to 190 people.”

Another victim, Lazette Bretthorst asked the judge to set an example “that you do have to suffer consequences of your actions.”

Several members of Bearden’s family were also in the courtroom. Kenneth Bearden, one of her adult children, pleaded for no jail time. He described his mom as the rock of their family.

His wife, Allison Bearden, told the judge how Bearden already has missed her grandchildrens’ school musicals, birthday parties, Easter egg hunts while she was under house arrest and wore an ankle monitor.

Wade Bearden, Bearden’s husband of 47 years, told the judge that what brought the family into the courtroom was “totally out of character” for his wife.

Bearden told the judge she hasn’t been able to sleep at night because of the “damage done to these people” and that it was unintentional.

“It was like a rolling stone ... I couldn’t stop it,” said Bearden, who sought to be free from jail to take care of a daughter who is suffering from a life-threatening illness and whose travel agency Bearden took over when she became ill.

After the sentencing, in a telephone interview, Carl Veline, a Warner Robins attorney representing Bearden, said, “I think the sentence is fair across the board.”

District Attorney Jason Ashford said afterward by telephone that while he would like to have seen Bearden sentenced to three years, the victims were happy with the sentencing. Ashford added that the victims will be much happier once they get their money back.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.