Gladys Cruz thought she'd done everything right in planning a dream vacation to Disney World in May 2016 for herself, her three daughters, her mother, and her nephew. She paid the $5,349 in full to a travel agent whom she'd met through a coworker. She took days off from work to prepare, spending an additional $1,000 on clothing for her kids.
But when Cruz, a single mother who works as a city probation officer, arrived with her family at the Southwest Philadelphia spot where they were to board a charter bus to the Magic Kingdom, there was no bus. Not even a pumpkin. The travel agent informed her by phone that the trip had been suddenly postponed.
"My kids are crying. They're like, 'Mom! Where's the bus?' " said Cruz, 38, her voice cracking with emotion. "I was devastated. Devastated. I had to think quick. I had to face my children in the car wondering, 'Are we going to go to Disney or not?' I took a loan within 24 hours, from the street. I'm still paying it off."
Cruz is not alone. Seven other women have told the Inquirer and Daily News they paid for trips that were mismanaged by the same home-based travel agent, Stephanie Mountcastle-Claiborne.
Claiborne, 45, says she has done nothing wrong. But 10 lawsuits representing 22 would-be travelers have been filed against her since 2008, all but one plaintiff winning judgments by default because she did not show up for trial. Amounts won range from $170 to $2,508, totaling $12,500.
Court records show that Claiborne paid one plaintiff $260, but the others have received nothing, due to Claiborne's refusal to pay and the slow pace of the legal process. A state victim advocate says complaints like those described by Claiborne's clients sound like fraud. But such claims are too small to interest police and civil lawyers, leaving the alleged victims stuck trying their luck — and spending their money — in Small Claims Court. Even then, they have no guarantee of justice.
Their stories provide a window into the difficulties faced by average people who seek to recoup losses in alleged scams.
The accusations against Claiborne are reminiscent of those leveled against former local TV sports anchorman Don Tollefson, who in 2015 was convicted in Bucks County of bilking about 100 people out of $340,000 by selling them trips and sporting-event tickets on behalf of charities but never making good on the transactions. After rejecting a plea deal that would have carried just months in prison, Tollefson represented himself at trial, was convicted, and was sentenced to two to four years in state prison and ordered to pay $164,000 in restitution.
Claiborne's alleged victims believe that she, too, should face criminal charges. They say the Philadelphia Police Department instead directed them to press their claims in Small Claims Court. The department has not provided the number of complaints it has received about Claiborne, or explained how it responded or why the complaints were not handled as crimes.
Gladys Cruz is still paying back the high-interest $4,000 loan she took out to fly her family to Disney World for a week. Claiborne has repaid only about $2,000 of the $5,349 Cruz gave her for the canceled trip, and Cruz said she has not received a refund payment in months.
The financial strain allegedly caused by Claiborne forced Cruz to fall behind on her electricity bill, and the power was turned off at her Holme Circle home, she said. "I sent her the shut-off notice and I said, 'If you can't send me some money, please pay PECO,' " Cruz said, fighting back tears.
Constance Jackson, 64, a retired schoolteacher, blames herself for trusting Claiborne.
"I said to myself, 'Connie, you are a big dummy,' " Jackson said, recalling her decision to give Claiborne $599 for a four-day trip to Las Vegas.
Before the trip was to begin last November, Jackson said, Claiborne failed to provide her with an itinerary, airline tickets, or a hotel confirmation. She and three friends — who each paid the same amount, they said — asked Claiborne for refunds but got the runaround.
"She's robbing Peter to pay Paul," Jackson said, referring to the fact that eight of the 15 people in her group who paid Claiborne got most of what they paid for and made it to Vegas.
In January, Jackson and her three friends received a joint Small Claims Court judgment against Claiborne for $2,508. They have yet to receive a dime, they said, and have paid the Philadelphia Sheriff's Office to initiate a process that could result in seizure of some of Claiborne's possessions to be auctioned to pay the judgment.
You won't find Worldwide Unique Star Travel in the Yellow Pages. It isn't among the businesses registered with the Pennsylvania Department of State. The Better Business Bureau lists the agency as unaccredited. The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office has not received a single complaint about Claiborne, a spokesman said.
Claiborne operates the agency from her Elmwood rowhouse, where she also runs Worldwide Unique Star Dance Studio, a dance school for children. In fact, some disgruntled customers said they learned of her travel agency from seeing her young dancers perform at sporting events.
She declined to be interviewed in person, but during three phone interviews Claiborne said she does not run a full-scale travel agency and described herself as a "group leader" who organizes family-oriented trips via Facebook.
She expressed bewilderment when asked about the lawsuits and allegations against her, saying that her accusers are slandering her after some had trips canceled at the last minute, while others failed to pick up tickets as required.
"They are portraying me as someone that I am not," said Claiborne. "This is just crazy. It's been overwhelming for me and my family; it's been bad. If it was not for my relationship with God, I would be torn apart."
When asked why Cruz's Disney World trip was canceled, Claiborne responded, "It was different things," and declined to elaborate.
In Pennsylvania, Small Claims Courts are the places to try to resolve disputes involving $12,000 or less, like those with Claiborne. Most people who seek justice there don't hire lawyers, and getting what you've won from a defendant can be nearly impossible, experts say.
If a defendant appeals a judgment, the case moves to Common Pleas Court, where the process can be overwhelming, said Center City attorney Michael Harris Fienman, who said a large part of his practice involves small claims cases.
"If you want to sue your neighbor over the principle, I would say, yeah, sue," Fienman said. "But if you are someone who can afford to walk away from that $2,000 or $4,000, I would say walk away, due to the unlikelihood of collecting."
Attorney Maureen Olives, director of intake for Philadelphia Legal Assistance, a nonprofit that provides legal services to low-income residents, said seeking justice in Small Claims Court has its difficulties. "It can be easier to win than it is to collect," she said. "Folks think the court is going to collect the money for them, but that's not going to happen."
Even with a favorable judgment, plaintiffs are barred by Pennsylvania and federal law from going after the first $300 in a defendant's bank account.
"A judgment does become a lien on [a defendant's] property, but that could be several years down the line before you see any money until the house is sold," Olives said. "It can be expensive to collect."
Ayana Reel, 40, a patient representative at Pennsylvania Hospital, knows that firsthand. Reel sued Claiborne in Small Claims Court over a family trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico, from June 28 to July 3, that never happened. She won a judgment against Claiborne in August for the $1,722 she had paid for round-trip airfare and lodging for herself, her daughter, and a friend, but has not sought a writ of execution from the Sheriff's Office to begin the process of seizing Claiborne's property for auction. "They want $125," Reel said. "I know it's worth it, but I have to get the money."
Jennifer Storm, the Commonwealth Victim Advocate, said that what Claiborne's accusers are describing sounds like fraud, a criminal offense, and she suggested they contact the Attorney General's Office.