Restitution made by Westport travel agent who ripped off seniors
Published 12:32 pm, Thursday, April 19, 2012
It took 28 months of what their leader called "a living hell," but a group of seniors swindled by a former Westport travel agent can finally go back from being crime busters to "Funseekers."
The former Westport agent, Peter Heyel, was convicted of stealing nearly $40,000 from the group of 54 Stratford seniors who had booked a trip through him to Branson, Mo.
But on Wednesday, Heyel handed off his final restitution check to the group before Judge Robert Devlin in Bridgeport Superior Court.
"Everybody turned out happy and Mr. Heyel got his just desserts," said Rosemary Boone, the leader of the senior group, after accepting a check for the final $4,318 in restitution. "He wouldn't look at me in the courtroom, but that's OK."
State's Attorney John Smriga said Heyel must still make a payment to the Branson tourism office, which picked up the tab for the seniors' trip last September.
Neither Heyel nor his lawyer, Assistant Public Defender William Schipul, would comment on the proceeding. Heyel, 67, previously pleaded no contest to second-degree larceny in the case.
Heyel, of Washington Avenue in Westport, had operated as a travel agent and tour leader under a number of different company names, including American Heritage Tours and Amtrak Tours.
In November 2008, police said the senior group, called the Funseekers, booked a four-day, three-night trip through Heyel to Branson. The trip included airfare, bus transportation, three nights at a hotel and tickets to six shows, including Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff's dinner show.
The trip was supposed to take place in October 2009, but police said about a week before, Heyel called Boone and told her that he would need to be paid an additional $80 per person. When Boone balked at paying the extra money, police said Heyel threatened that if the group didn't pay, the trip would be cancelled.
Police said that Boone became suspicious and contacted the hotel they were supposed to be staying in, only to find that Heyel had never booked the stay. She also learned that Heyel had never booked any of the shows they were supposed to have tickets for, police said. The bus company said Heyel had contacted them about the trip, but never sent them any money.
Police said they went to the office building on Charles Street in Westport that Heyel listed in his travel brochures as his office. They said the owner of the building, Robert Sloat, confirmed Heyel had an office there, but added, "If you find him, tell him to pay the money he owes for his rent." Police said they later learned that Heyel has been accused of defrauding senior citizens in other states. In June 2008, a New York court ordered him to pay $23,000 in restitution to senior groups.
Boone said after a story about their plight ran in the Connecticut Post, the group was contacted by the mayor of Branson and the tourism office there, offering to pay for their trip. In September, 49 of the original group members traveled to Branson.
"We all had a wonderful time," Boone said. She said they got to see Smirnoff, who made a big deal about the group being there and even got to go on a riverboat dinner cruise. "Everyone in Branson was so nice to us, it reminded me of Disneyland for seniors," she said.
Their only disappointment was that they didn't get to see singer Andy Williams perform.