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Former Clients Cheer Travel Agent's Arrest : Crime: Susan Reindl is accused of bilking $500,000 from hundreds of South Bay residents. She faces a 10-year prison sentence if convicted.

July 07, 1994|JEFF KASS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Larry and Deb Whipple of Lawndale will celebrate two unusual anniversaries this month: the day their travel agent allegedly fled with almost $1,000 of their trip deposit, and the honeymoon they took in spite of the setback.

The Whipples are among more than 400 South Bay residents who Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies say were left holding their bags when their travel agent, Susan Reindl, suddenly closed the doors of Apollo Travel Service in Rancho Palos Verdes three years ago and disappeared with almost $500,000 in trip deposits.

After a three-year investigation, deputies arrested Reindl on June 28 at a Harbor City travel agency where she was working. The arrest warrant charged Reindl with 74 felonies involving grand theft and travel-promotion violations. Reindl pleaded not guilty at her arraignment June 29 and was later released after posting $250,000 bail. A judge on Tuesday is scheduled to set the date for a preliminary hearing.

If convicted, Reindl could face up to 10 years in prison, said Laura Aalto, a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney who is handling the case.

The court could also ask Reindl to reimburse travelers left in the lurch, and a criminal conviction could mean that travelers who were defrauded would be among the first in line to collect from Reindl's assets filed under bankruptcy.

But local residents who were left ticketless, whether or not they receive their money back, were glad to hear of Reindl's arrest.

"I admire the perseverance of the Sheriff's Department," said Larry Whipple, 51, a retired Air Force projects manager. "I'd just about given up."

After Reindl closed shop, Whipple said, he and his wife paid Carnival Cruise Lines another $550 and took their scheduled 10-day honeymoon cruise. Whipple said Carnival already had received about $1,100 of the couple's original $2,000 deposit.

"We were going to have a good time, regardless," he said.

Reindl eventually filed a Chapter 7 personal bankruptcy and a Chapter 11 bankruptcy for Apollo Travel. In previous court proceedings, she said her business was hurt by the Gulf War and accused a former employee of embezzling $80,000 from Apollo, opening his own travel agency, and stealing 60% of her customers.

In an interview, Reindl's attorney, Mona Soo Hoo, repeated those claims and added that the recession contributed to Apollo's bankruptcy.

But Sheriff's Department investigators allege that Reindl bilked clients by failing to make trip reservations or by making reservations and canceling them later. When asked about an employee who may have contributed to Apollo's downfall, investigators and the district attorney's office note that charges have been filed against Reindl only.

Prosecutor Aalto said she had no evidence that Reindl has been living lavishly over the past three years, but said she did not seek such information.

Whipple said he received a Nov. 4, 1993, letter stating that assets related to the Reindl case "may become available." He said he sent in his claim Nov. 21 just as he began to feel the Apollo Travel case was "one more somebody bilking a bunch of people and trying to get away from it invoking bankruptcy."

But, Aalto said, it is a coincidence that the bankruptcy court sent out notices a few months before Reindl was arrested.

Though the Whipples managed to salvage their honeymoon, other South Bay residents were not so lucky.

Harbor City resident Helen Vaca said she and 13 relatives lost about $14,000 in deposits for a seven-day cruise to Mexico. Vaca, who helped form a support group called Victims of Apollo Travel, says she was also disturbed at seeing Reindl work at a travel agency two blocks from her home. "It's like UFO sightings," Vaca said, adding that Reindl was spotted in supermarkets and other locales.

Soo Hoo, however, said Reindl's effort to "live openly" in the South Bay shows that her client has no intention of evading investigators. "She goes to the same hairdresser," Soo Hoo said. "She shops at the same market."

Reindl had been working part-time at the Bo Lam Travel Service, 1662 W. Sepulveda Blvd., for nine months when she was arrested, said owner Telry Lim.

Lim said she knew of the bankruptcy but assumed Reindl's problems were behind her. She said she has no reason to believe Reindl did anything underhanded there.

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