Merced tour company owner charged with theft

10/09/2013 6:25 PM

10/09/2013 6:26 PM

The Merced County District Attorney’s Office has filed felony theft charges against a local tour company owner who allegedly took money from dozens of customers but never delivered on the trips.

Shirley Ann Benoy, 56, of Merced faces five felony counts and 25 misdemeanor counts for the alleged crimes, which occurred around August and September 2011, according to the criminal complaint.

The case was filed by prosecutors last month. Benoy was contacted by phone on Wednesday, but said she had no comment about the case and was not aware of the charges. Benoy has hired defense attorney C. Logan McKechnie to represent her in court. McKechnie said it’s too early to comment about the case and he’s anticipating reviewing the reports by law enforcement.

Deputy District Attorney Walter Wall, the prosecutor in the case, said Benoy is accused of taking a total of $14,541 from more than 30 alleged victims, many of whom are senior citizens. Some of the victims are members of the Gustine Senior Citizens Club and the Red Hat Ladies.

Benoy was doing business as Golden Charm Tours and Shirley Benoy Tours. The District Attorney’s Office began looking at the allegations after someone filed a consumer fraud complaint, accusing her of accepting money to provide travel tours but failing to fulfill the contract. For example, on Sept. 12, 2011, the Red Hat Ladies group from the Merced Senior Center allegedly paid Benoy for a bus trip to attend horse races in the Bay Area. The trip was supposed to include entrance to the race, food and a seat in the box section of the stadium, according to court documents.

When the seniors group arrived at the stadium, however, they were not admitted after learning their admission costs had never been paid by Benoy. As a result, they had to pay full price in order to enter the stadium.

Others who’d done business with Benoy shared similar stories about paying Benoy for trips that never came to fruition as expected, and without receiving a refund. For example, on Sept. 19, 2011, members of the Gustine Senior Citizens Club were supposed to take a bus trip to Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino, after paying $28 per person. The bus, however, never arrived; Benoy claimed it had broken down. A member of the Gustine Senior Citizens Club called the bus company to find out what happened, only to be told that bus arrangements had never been made, according to court documents.

On Sept. 21, 2011, Benoy sent out an email saying she was going out of business. The notice also said those who’d paid money would receive a refund, although no one did, according to court documents.

When an investigator with the District Attorney’s Office confronted Benoy about the allegations, she promised to pay back “every penny” of her customers’ money “with interest.” Benoy allegedly told the investigator that money would be repaid by March 2012, saying she planned on selling a tour bus in order to come up with the cash. “I have no money. I have nothing,” Benoy told the investigator, according to court documents. “I don’t even have a checking account. I have nothing.”

A search of the state’s Department of Insurance website shows Benoy’s travel agent license expired Sept. 30, 2008.

Don Lee, a volunteer with the Merced Senior Center, said he began compiling a list of people who’d given money to Benoy but never received a refund after their trips didn’t happen.

Lee said he was initially surprised about the unreturned money, because he’d previously been on trips arranged by Benoy, and there had never been a problem. “Everybody was just shocked,” Lee said. “We’d never had a problem. The buses left on time, they were interesting trips. ... She’s a very capable tour guide.”

Lee said he and a group of other customers paid Benoy to visit the Little Bighorn National Monument in Montana two years ago, and the trip happened without any problems. But after Lee returned home from the Montana trip, he received a letter in the mail from Benoy, saying she was going out of business. At that point, however, Lee said he’d already paid $100 to Benoy for another trip – a visit to the USS Potomac in Oakland.

The trip to the Potomac never materialized, and Lee said he still hasn’t been refunded his $100. Lee said seniors who were owed money by Benoy began approaching him because he’d previously gone on trips she’d arranged. Lee said at that point he began compiling a list of people who were owed money. “A lot of them didn’t have that much money,” Lee said. “They saved to go on a trip and that was a big thing.”

According to the criminal complaint, the five felony counts Benoy faces include three counts of grand theft and two counts of theft from a senior. She’s also charged with 25 misdemeanor counts of theft from a senior or dependent adult of $950 or less.

An arraignment date has not been set for Benoy, according to court staff. If convicted, she faces a maximum sentence of about five years in jail.

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