Former Hampton University Student Sentenced for Stealing Spring Break Funds
(Newport News, Va) - Christopher Ryan Thomas, 24, of Sugarland, Texas, was sentenced today to 33 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release, for participating in a scheme to steal students’ spring break funds. He was ordered to pay $230,134.76 in restitution.
Neil H. MacBride, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, made the announcement after sentencing by United States District Judge Henry C. Morgan. Thomas plead guilty on October 8, 2009.
According to court documents, Thomas established his own travel business, Christopher Ryan Thomas, Inc., which scheduled and planned various vacation trips for students and others. On August 11, 2005, Thomas opened a business checking account with Bank of America. In September 2006, Thomas was a student at Hampton University affiliated with the Student Government Association. The senior class began to plan a spring break trip, and Thomas was selected as a travel agent for the trip to the Sunset Beach Resort and Spa in Jamaica. The trip fee averaged $1,000 and was to be all-inclusive – covering airline tickets, lodging, food and taxes. From November 2006 through April 2007, Thomas collected approximately $200,000 from approximately 200 Hampton University students.
Between October 2006 and May 2007, Thomas deposited approximately $240,000 into his business account, $200,000 of which was the spring break trip funds. From November 2006 through April 2007 Thomas spent trip funds collected from students on unrelated purchases including travel, rent, transfers to an Etrade account, utilities, vehicle payments and repairs and other expenses totaling thousands of dollars. Thomas did not disclose these purchases to the trip participants, who believed their payments were dedicated solely to the Jamaica trip. On Dec. 13, 2006, Thomas faxed a group contract along with credit card authorization to the Sunset Beach Resort and Spa. The credit card was charged a deposit of $10,080 on February 9, 2007.
In early 2007, Thomas began plans to hold a concert at Hampton University involving a rap music artist. In March 2007, Thomas contracted to lease the Hampton Convocation Center and without authorization from any of the paying students, used the Spring Break 2007 trip funds to rent the Convocation Center and to pay all other concert expenses, including expenses for entertainment, lodging, travel and promotion. The concert related expenses totaled approximately $67,000.
On March 26, 2007, after Thomas made plans for the concert and spent a substantial portion of the Spring Break 2007 trip funds on concert and personal purposes, Thomas sent an e-mail to participants of the senior trip with a reminder that a final payment was due by March 30, 2007. In late March 2007, Thomas collected over $50,000 from students toward the Spring Break 2007 trip funds. Thomas did not disclose to the senior trip students that he had elected to spend their trip money on the spring concert, or that he had used portions of the collected funds for various personal expenses.
The April 5, 2007, spring concert was unsuccessful and resulted in the loss of substantial funds, with no profit returning to Thomas. Between on or about April 2, 2007, and April 11, 2007, Thomas used a debit card connected to his business account to make 209 transactions totaling approximately $76,298.88. Approximately 160 of these transactions were for Delta Air plane tickets for the spring break trip. At the time Thomas began to make the debit transactions for the airfare, the bank account contained approximately $27,698.21, resulting in an account overdraft of approximately $44,708.03.
Thomas continued to solicit and receive money from students for various trip related purposes after the failed April 5, 2007, concert. On April 24 and 25, 2007, the Sunset Beach Resort and Spa made several efforts to contact Thomas by phone and e-mail, in order to finalize payment to the resort and rooming information. Thomas responded via email on April 26, 2007, providing the rooming information, but no response on the payment to the resort. Thereafter Thomas requested “help on the payment situation.”
The students left for Jamaica on or about May 2, 2007. When they arrived to check into the Sunset Beach Resort and Spa, they learned that Thomas had not paid their lodging expenses, resulting in a balance due to the Sunset Resort and Spa of approximately $90,825. Thomas made a number of attempts to charge the lodging fee on credit cards; however, no funds were available. Thomas also sent a facsimile transmission from the Sunset Beach Resort and Spa requesting the transfer of funds from an account on which he was not an authorized user.
On May 2 and 3, 2007, Thomas provided a number of false explanations to the students as to why he was unable to pay for the lodging, including that his bank was unable to transfer such a large sum to a foreign country and that his business partner had lost the money. Thomas requested that the students pay for one night at the resort and claimed he would reimburse them. This caused many students to make calls to friends and relatives in the United States in order to request additional funds.
The majority of the students were never reimbursed by Thomas for the money they provided to him for the Spring Break trip. None of the students were aware that Thomas used the provided funds for personal uses or for the spring concert.
This case was investigated by the FBI. Assistant United States Attorney Brian J. Samuels prosecuted the case on behalf of the United States.