File this under the category of “How could he do it?”
A Utah travel agent now faces 20 years behind bars without parole after stealing more than $630,000 from two high school bands with dreams of a tropical trip.
Calliope “Ope” Saaga, 40, plead guilty to federal wire fraud in two separate cases in which he was contracted to make travel plans for band trips to Hawaii scheduled for 2012.
Calliope “Ope” Saaga leaves a federal courthouse in Missouri on Oct. 15, 2014. (Photo: Valerie Mosley/News-Leader)
The fraud scheme cheated students from Willard High School in Willard, Mo., and Southside High School in Fort Smith, Ark., out of once-in-a-lifetime band trips. Both trips were canceled a few months before the scheduled departure dates, once it was obvious that nothing was booked. It affected 300 students and chaperones from Missouri and 276 students and chaperones from Arkansas.
Instead of booking airfare, hotels, transportation, and meals, Saaga used the money to finance a high-roller lifestyle. This included at least 47 days of gambling in Las Vegas, according the U.S. attorney’s office.
Hiding His Deceit
Neither band saw it coming. Both had used Saaga’s services for previous trips that took place without incident, and both had been receiving emails from Saaga with details about the travel arrangements.
Saaga was doing business through his company, Present America Tours, LLC, when he contracted with the Willard High School Band Boosters to provide travel arrangements for its trip to Hawaii. Between February 2011 and January 2012, the Missouri-based band wired Saaga 12 payments totaling $360,000 to arrange travel for 300 students and chaperones.
While spending the money in Vegas and elsewhere, Saaga sent emails to the band director with trip details. This lulled band boosters into believing that the trip to Hawaii was on schedule.
The Southside High School band in Arkansas (Photo: Courtesy of Southside High School)
Meanwhile, a similar scenario was playing out in Arkansas. Saaga contracted with the Southside High School band through his other company, Performing Hawaii Tours, LLC, to provide travel arrangements for its trip to Hawaii. The band wired him three payments between September 2011 and February 2012 totaling $272,500.
Communication stopped abruptly around spring break before Saaga sent an email to Southside High School officials apologizing for ruining the planned trip. “Once again, I apologize as there is no money at this point as I made some bad investments, thus me trying to sell overseas assets to recover all the lost money,” Saaga wrote. “Again, my sincerest apologies as I’m trying to right all the wrong that I did.”
Saaga never did make it “right,” and hundreds of disappointed students had to pay for his deceit.
While Saaga’s actions may leave a small blemish on an otherwise upstanding travel agent industry, those who know him have said his actions are out of character.
“We traveled with him before, and he did a great job,” Steve Kesner, former Southside High School band director, told the Times Record. “We developed a relationship. I don’t think that he’s a bad man at all. I think he made a bad mistake.”
That mistake comes with serious costs. Saaga faces up to 20 years in federal prison without parole, plus a fine up to $250,000 and mandatory restitution for wire fraud.
A judge in the case said it “could be somewhere in the range of $700,000, which is something a wealthy person could find hard to pay back.”
Prison time, according to the Arkansas plea, could run concurrent with Missouri’s punishment. Sentencing hearings are pending in both Missouri and Arkansas.
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