Would-be travelers lose thousands

Published 1:30 pm Wednesday, September 23, 2015

By Diana McFarland

News editor

They had planned the trip to Europe for a year, some even saving babysitting money to pay for it, and all bought new clothes and rearranged summer schedules.

Sights to see on the 11-day tour included Windsor Castle in England and Notre Dame in Paris. The trip, arranged through Grade A Travel LLC, was for members of the Smithfield High School Spanish Honor Society, their teachers and their parents.

Then, inexplicably, the trip was cancelled two days before departure, June 22. Worse, parents and students have still not received a promised refund, with some families losing up to $10,000.

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“I thought it was a joke. I was packed and ready to go,” said Smithfield High School student Claire Piatal. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Mother Paula Manson and her husband, Barry, had planned to make this a family trip with their daughter, Alexis. Now the family has lost $10,000 and is desperate to get it back, as well as stop the travel agent, Augustine Acheampong with Grade A Travel of Lorton, from booking another high school group.

“I have to have some satisfaction from this,” said Paula Manson.

“I refuse to give up.”

According to Manson, and two other parents, Sheryl Senter and Kristie Lanford, teachers and parents at Smithfield High School had successfully worked with Acheampong in the past, as had teachers at Isle of Wight Academy.

A group from Isle of Wight Academy had a trip arranged by Acheampong to Puerto Rico earlier this year and it went well, said Headmaster Benjamin Vaughan. 

Because of those prior trips, the parents said they didn’t feel the need to look further into Acheampong, or his company, Grade A Travel, as well as his previous employer, Meriden Travel USA.

The trip, however, was not sanctioned by Isle of Wight County schools as it was privately sponsored and not part of the instructional program, said Isle of Wight schools spokesperson Kenita Bowers.

Grade A Travel solicits business from schools, teachers and children to travel abroad, according to the parents.

Manson said the parents were aware that the trip fell outside the control of the schools.

Drug charges

The failed trip to London, Paris and Madrid included 19 parents, students and two teachers from Smithfield High School, as well as several individuals from two other high schools for a total of 33 people. Each person was to pay $3,300. Acheampong encouraged them to pay by check, rather than credit cards, which has made it even harder to get their money back, Manson said.

In an email to parents and students two days before departure, Grade A Travel informed the group that due to problems with land arrangements in Europe, the trip had to be rescheduled or cancelled. If cancelled, everyone would be provided a full refund, according to the email.

Initially half of the group rescheduled and half could not change their schedule and cancelled. However, during a face-to-face meeting, Acheampong told the group that he had a lawsuit against his European counterpart, Manson said.

Concerned, Manson asked who his attorney was, and Acheampong told her the lawyer’s name. When Manson called his office to inquire about the purported lawsuit, she found out instead that he had been charged with the sale and distribution of marijuana and that the attorney was actually defending him for that charge and not a civil suit. Manson immediately alerted the Smithfield High School teacher, who confirmed the information and emailed all the others in their group about the drug charge. At that point, everyone with the Smithfield group cancelled, Manson said.

“There’s no parent in their right mind who would send their child off with a drug dealer,” Manson said.

Acheampong was convicted April 22 for the sale and distribution of marijuana in Fairfax County Circuit Court. He was sentenced July 17 to a suspended 18-month prison sentence, as well as being under supervised probation, according to court officials.

Efforts to reach Acheampong , his company and his attorney have been unsuccessful.

No refunds

Once the parents and students cancelled, they submitted claims with Travel Guard, with which they had purchased travel insurance. They were denied because the reason for the cancellation did not fall within the company’s refund policy parameters, Manson said.

In addition, they learned that Acheampong had given conflicting reasons for the cancellations, one being that there weren’t enough people to justify the trip, that the parent’s changed their minds and that the trip was postponed.

None of those reasons, so far, have allowed for a refund, Manson said.  

While officials with Travel Guard indicated they would look into the claim, no information was provided by press time.

Manson also learned that Acheampong had given them false confirmation numbers with the airlines and had booked the tickets through Expedia, causing the parents to doubt his credentials, she said.  

Lanford was told Acheampong would instead meet them at the airport and pay for the tickets. Manson was told he would charter a bus to take them there.

“That raised a red flag with me,” she said.

And the stories kept coming.

Lanford found a 2013 news story online from NorthJersey.com/The Record describing a similar cancelled trip through Meriden USA and quoted Acheampong, as the former program manager for the company.

The Smithfield Times also learned there are two companies with the same Lorton address listed with the Virginia Corporation Commission — Grade A Travel LLC and Grade A Tours and Travel LLC. The former has Acheampong listed as the principal officer and is currently delinquent. The second was established July 7 and lists LegalInc Corporate Services Inc. as the registered agent.  

Senter found a very negative review online at bizyellow about Grade A Travel from a group in Roanoke complaining about lack of transportation, poor planning and unknown expenses. The review has since been removed.

Manson said the parents and students had even met with Acheampong face-to-face days before the cancellation, and he was giving them packing lists and other information knowing that the trip wasn’t going to happen.

The parents met Monday night with investigators with the Isle of Wight Sheriff’s Office and Commonwealth’s Attorney Georgette Phillips. According to Lt. Thomas Potter, law enforcement will gather more information to determine if this is a criminal or civil issue. In order to investigate a fraud case, it needs to be determined that when the agreements were made, one party or the other had the intention to defraud, Potter said, adding that the Virginia Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division has also reached out to the families. 

The parents also continue to seek a refund from Travel Guard.

Despite the anger, disappointment and lost money, the parents are also sad for their children, who have learned a hard lesson.

“You can’t replace the idealism and the innocence they had,” Manson said.

“It changes your outlook on everything,” Lanford added. {/mprestriction}