James and Mary Potanko of Pittsburgh’s Crafton Heights neighborhood were looking forward for months to their planned bus trip to the Kentucky Derby in May.
The Potankos, retired teachers from Beth-Center and Pittsburgh school districts, hoped to scratch “another travel destination off” their bucket list when they booked a four-day trip with a former Ligonier travel agent in November.
“My wife had always wanted to go to the Derby, so we thought we’d finally book it,” said James Potanko, 69. “Then, one day before we were scheduled to leave, we get a letter in the mail saying because of problems with the bus, the trip was canceled. We were excited, had already packed. … Then you think, ‘Gee, whiz.’
“But the letter claimed we would receive a full refund,” he said.
The Potankos, like dozens of others who booked trips with Christine Victoria Cepek, 44, of Unity, are still waiting for refunds from Motor Coach Tours by Christine.
Cepek has been jailed in Westmoreland County since June 2 for bilking other clients out of tens of thousands of dollars for bus tours and vacations that she never arranged. She was charged this week with scamming 44 additional customers out of $56,967. The Potankos lost about $6,100.
Working out of an office on North St. Clair Street in Ligonier, Cepek allegedly took money from the clients to pay “personal expenses unrelated to any tours or trips scheduled by the victims,” county Detective Will Brown said.
Cepek formerly lived in the South Fork area of Cambria County. For about a month this summer, she was transferred from the Westmoreland lockup to the Cambria County Jail for violating her parole for a 2009 bad check scheme in Cambria and Somerset counties.
Brown and Ligonier police Chief John Berger filed the new complaints this week before Mt. Pleasant District Judge Roger Eckels.
“The majority of these new cases are people who have come forward because of the publicity surrounding the case after she was originally arrested,” Brown said.
Berger and Brown wrote in the affidavit of probable cause that the 44 victims thought they were making payments on bus tours, vacations or trips throughout the United States and the Caribbean between Nov. 11, 2014, and this spring when she was arrested.
Cepek allegedly took the money from clients for tours to New Orleans, Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, Washington and cruises in the Caribbean. The victims in the most recent complaints had paid Cepek amounts ranging from $50 to $6,100, according to the affidavit.
“Cepek then failed to schedule, provide transportation or accommodations for the tours and trips. Cepek further failed to return the funds provided by the victims,” Berger and Brown wrote.
Cepek previously was charged by state police with multiple theft and fraud charges and writing bad refund checks.
The Potankos said they regret missing the first leg of American Pharoah’s historic Triple Crown run on May 7.
“(Cepek) even told us by telephone back around Thanksgiving that she had a regular group from the Greensburg area that annually traveled to the Derby, and they no longer were going. She told me she didn’t want to lose her spots at Churchill Downs,” James Potanko said.
“But like Detective Brown told us, it could have happened to anyone. … She did have some past history of actually booking trips that went through, but who knew this would happen to us?” he said. “It certainly sounded legit when we booked it.”
Cepek was arraigned before Eckels on multiple charges of theft by deception, theft by unlawful taking, deceptive or fraudulent business practices, and receiving stolen property. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Sept. 3.
Cepek has been in the county prison in Hempfield after failing to post $80,500 bond. This week, Eckels increased her bond to $130,500.
In January 2011, Cepek pleaded guilty in Cambria County to the bad check charges and was placed on probation for five years. She completed her $1,200 in restitution payments by September 2014, records show.
Paul Peirce is a reporter for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or [email protected].