It sounded too good to be true: A weekend bus trip to Disney World in Orlando, Fla., two nights at a motel there, and admission to Disney World itself for a grand total of $45.
It was not true.
Five hundred persons signed up for the trip and paid a total of $20,000 in advance, most of them through a New Samaritan Baptist Church club in Northeast Washington. But they got only as far as Emporia, Va., last Friday before the bubble burst and they found themselves headed back to Washington.
Yesterday, a federal arrest warrant was issued for the trip promoter, David Leonard Steed, 21, of 175 S. Reynolds St., Alexandria, on fraud charges in connection with the tour. Steed had been questioned last week by skeptical police and prosecutors who had heard of the proposed low-cost trip in advance, but were powerless to act since he assured them that the trip would be completed even if he had to pay any additional costs out of his own pocket, according to court records.
Persons connected with recruiting the tour members refused to discuss the trip with a reporter. But details of the events leading up to it were outlined in an affidavit supporting an arrest warrant signed yesterday by U.S. Magistrate Jean F. Dwyer.
The affidavit reflects the dogged determination of Police Det. Lorraine Paradise, of the consumer fraud unit, who said she became "concerned over the low price and the offer in general" after learning of the unusually small sum through a "confidential informant."
She began checking out the various bus companies in the Washington area and the Interstat Commerce Commission to determine whether Steed had reserved any buses for the trip and learned of only one telephone contact with a bus company by the promoter, she said in her affidavit. She then called numerous hotels in the Orlando area last week and found no reservations made for the trip by Steed, she added.
Then, she found herself on the receiving end of a telephone call from Steed, "who called to express his displeasure with my questioning of the hotels and bus companies," she added in the affidavit.
Steed told her he owned 10 buses and had placed deposits at hotels in Florida, but refused to give her the names of those hotels, according to the affidavit. Finally, she asserted in the document, she located one hotel whose spokesman said it had booked 150 rooms for the tour, but had no advance deposit.
Steed and his attorney then came to Paradise, she continued in her sworn statement, and said the promoter "was attempting to start up his tour business" and that the trip would be carried out as planned. In further contacts with the police officer, Steed again assured her that the trip would begin in Washington at Michigan and Irving Streets NE where 12 buses would pick up 537 passengers at 5:30 a.m. Friday, according to the affadavit.
Paradise said she was to discover later that Steed had not made any final bus arrangements until 11:30 p.m. on Thursday, the affidavit asserted.
The group left on time from the District, headed for Emporia, Va., and a transfer to the Franklin Bus Services Co's buses there. Only one bus, which was routed instead through Roanoke, actually got as far as Orlando and Disney World, the affidavit said.
The 11 others got to Emporia, where the Franklin Bus Service Co. awaited the arrival of Steed and a check for $11,500, according to the affidavit.
"When the buses arrived (from D.C.) at approximately 11 on the morning of the 25th, Steed was not with the passengers," said the affidavit. The Franklin buses refused to roll without their payment, and the D.C. buses returned to Washington.
Numerous persons aboard the buses filed complaints with the Metropolitan Police Department and the U.S. Attorney's Office, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Shaughnessy of the fraud division.
One person, Jeanette Curtis, said she first learned of the trip in February and thought it would be "an attractive trip for the members of their church," New Samaritan Baptist, according to the police affidavit, and received permission for her church club to sponsor the tour.
She also said that after she returned to Washington last Friday, she called the motel in Orlando where the group was supposed to be staying. She said she "was told that Steed had called shortly after 11 a.m. and instructed the motel that only 14 of the 150 rooms would be required for the one arriving busload since the other 11 buses had broken down en route," the affidavit said.
The group that got to Orlando had to arrange its own tour of Disney World, and were brought back to Washington by their unpaid bus driver only "because he felt sorry for them," the affidavit added.