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Travel Agency Owner Charged With Grand Theft

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Times Staff Writer

Shirley Hughes had looked forward to the cruise: 14 glorious days and nights off the coast of Mexico, through the Panama Canal and up the Caribbean to the Jamaican port of Montego Bay.

She had been on cruises before, but this was going to be special. Close friends would be on board, the ship had a good reputation and they had all arranged to spend four extra days in Montego Bay before heading home.

“So can you imagine how I felt when we find out we’ve lost all our money?” Hughes, who lives in Westminster, asked Friday. “And now I’ve got these people mad at me? How am I supposed to feel?”

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Hughes, according to police, fell victim to a scam in which a travel agency promised extended cruises at discount fares. The agency demanded money in advance of departure dates but then did not forward some of it to the ship lines, police said.

According to Costa Mesa Police Detective Steve Labbitt, 97 people across the country were bilked of more than $62,000 by TT’s Travel Services of Costa Mesa. Norman Gerald Shanahan, president of the agency, was arrested Thursday night at his home in Costa Mesa on a warrant charging him with grand theft.

The warrant alleges that Shanahan, 58, accepted 46 payments for trips on eight cruise lines. Some of the victims lost just a deposit, while others lost the entire price of the cruise, Labbitt said. Individual losses ranged from $200 to more than $5,000, he said.

Police said Shanahan advertised in major newspapers across the country offering cruises from U.S. ports at discount prices. Shanahan had operated TT’s Travel Services from his Costa Mesa office since 1986.

Some customers such as Hughes had dealt with him before and had found him honest and reliable.

“I had been to Mexico on a cruise he arranged last year and had no problems,” she said. She was once so impressed with Shanahan, Hughes said, that she had considered working with him booking cruises. “He always seemed very nice over the phone. His prices were always cheaper than anywhere else.”

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In her case, Hughes said, she had collected $200 each from seven friends who had planned to go on a Sept. 23 trip aboard a Regency Cruise Lines ship departing from Los Angeles. The trip total was $1,796 and the $200 was represented to them as a deposit to guarantee a space on the cruise. The remainder was due July 23.

“I gathered this deposit money myself and wrote him a check on my own account for $1,400,” she said. “It wasn’t until I was going to pay the rest, about $15,000, that I discovered something was wrong. A few days before the money was due I decided to call him first. His number had been disconnected.”

Like others, Hughes soon discovered that TT’s Travel Services had closed without notice in early June. Concerned and angry customers soon began calling the Costa Mesa police, and an investigation was begun.

“Can you imagine if I had given him that $15,000?” Hughes asked. “It’s bad enough with the $1,400. My friends are all trying to be understanding, but I hear little comments like, ‘You should be responsible because you knew this man.’ It’s kind of hard to take.”

Labbitt said Shanahan has cooperated with the investigation from the start, even going so far as to provide a ledger detailing exactly whose deposits had not been used as they should have.

Some customers had been taken care of properly but others were not, Labbitt said.

“When I asked him how he decided which people got their trips, he told me, ‘The squeaky wheel gets the grease,’ ” Labbitt said.

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Labbitt said 12 people sent money for fall cruises that Shanahan has not booked.

According to Labbitt, Shanahan said he used the money to try to keep his business afloat.

“He said he utilized the money to keep the business operational . . . because his business was going under,” Labbitt said. “He claimed he didn’t do it for personal gain.”

Labbitt said TT’s Travel Services did “a volume business” in its first year of operation and had gained cruise lines’ trust. Because of this, Labbitt said, some of the lines had accepted Shanahan’s reservations without deposits.

“These people would call up the cruise ship lines to confirm their reservations, and sometimes the cruise ship would confirm their reservations without having received a deposit from TT’s Travel,” Labbitt said. “So the people would feel secure about sending in their balance due, which in some cases was as much as $4,700.”

But when TT’s Travel Services did not pass along the deposits, Labbitt said, the reservations were canceled.

Sue Motonaga of Carson said she lost almost $5,000 on a cruise she was supposed to take with her husband and two sisters on the S.S. Bermuda Star. The seven-day trip was to have left from Montreal and ended in Philadelphia.

“I called the cruise lines to see if we were booked, and they said no problem,” Motonaga said. “When I called back some time later and asked when they were going to issue the tickets, they said they were sorry but they had canceled us because the cruise had not been paid for.”

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“I called Shanahan the same day and he told me he’d look into it,” she said. “Well, he didn’t get back to me, and the next day I called and all I got was an answering machine. I should have known, and I feel like a dummy.”

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