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Past of Tour Agent for Students Marred by Debts and Larceny

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Times Staff Writer

The owners of a Mission Valley travel agency that canceled a series of prepaid field trips to the East Coast planned by San Diego-area students this month pleaded guilty to charges of bank larceny in 1983, federal court records show.

Anthony Donald Casias, Leo Ronald Casias and two other defendants were charged with embezzling $20,183 from the North Park branch of California First Bank and stealing $421,000 from a National City branch of Bank of America.

In 1984, a U.S. District Court judge placed them on five years’ probation and ordered them to make full restitution to the banks with minimum payments of $5,000 per month. In September, 1987, they were brought before the court for failure to make those payments.

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U.S. Probation Supervisor Charles Alexander said the Casias brothers and their co-defendants were brought back before the court to explain why they had not kept up with their payments. Alexander said that a new payment schedule was established at the September hearing but would not say whether the two men had kept up with their payments since then.

The Casias brothers are co-owners of East West Travel, an agency that has sold package tours to the East Coast to a number of local school groups over the past 12 years. Earlier this week a group of more than 200 students, parents and teachers from Emerald Junior High School in El Cajon, who had paid the agency $120,000 for a 10-day tour of three East Coast cities, were stranded in Washington, D.C. when the travel agency ran out of money.

On Wednesday, Anthony Casias informed the San Diego Unified School District that he would have to cancel similar trips planned for this month by four district middle-schools because of a cash-flow problem. Students at the four schools had paid the agency a total of almost $200,000. Casias told school officials that he was planning to file for bankruptcy.

School officials said they were shocked to discover that the owners of a business they had a long-term relationship with had criminal records.

“I couldn’t believe that,” said Joene Bruhn, principal of Bell Junior High, one of the schools that had its East Coast tour canceled. “We were probably negligent in not checking it more thoroughly, but you just tend to be more trusting.”

But others who had long-term business relationships with East West Travel had been aware of the agency’s financial problems for several years.

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H.G. MacKenzie, vice president of the American Society of Travel Agents West, said that East West had been denied membership in the trade association because a number of the group’s members had complained about Anthony Casias’ ability to manage his finances.

“He was very careless about paying off people he should have paid,” MacKenzie said.

However, MacKenzie said he had never heard any complaints about East West’s ability to provide services to its customers until this week.

“Up to this point, (Casias) delivered a product where they got their money’s worth,” MacKenzie said. “From that point of view, he did a good job.”

MacKenzie said that East West had defaulted on its account with the Airline Reporting Corporation, a firm that serves as an intermediary between travel agents and airlines, in 1985. After that, the agency was required to pay for its airline tickets in advance with either cash or a certified check, MacKenzie said.

Bill Horn, a spokesman for ARC, said his firm stopped doing business with East West in July, 1987.

In addition, Superior Court records show that East West was sued five times for non-payment of rent between April, 1984 and August, 1985.

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Melanie Petersen, an attorney for the San Diego Unified School District, said the district will decide at next Tuesday’s Board of Education’s meeting whether it will take legal action against East West.

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