Juan Carlos Arteaga promised his clients steep discounts on trips while holding himself out as a travel agent in northeast Florida, according to federal prosecutors.
But the travel arrangements were rarely — if ever — booked. Instead, the government said, Arteaga pocketed the money to pay for living expenses or cover the cost of booking other people’s vacations in an effort to stave off suspicion. He was ultimately accused of stealing more than $800,000 from clients over 10 months in 2018 and 2019.
A federal judge sentenced Arteaga on April 20 to three years in federal prison — a far cry from the one day in prison his defense attorney had requested.
The judge also ordered him to pay $784,364 in restitution to his victims and forfeit an additional $843,187.
Arteaga, who was taken into custody shortly after his sentencing hearing in the Middle District of Florida, could not be reached for comment. His defense attorney did not immediately respond to McClatchy News’ request for comment on April 22.
Arteaga is 58 and currently lives in Conroe, Texas, north of Houston. His lawyer said in sentencing documents that he has expressed “extreme remorse” about what happened.
According to the government, Arteaga was living in Jacksonville, Florida, in March 2018 when he began advertising “heavily discounted travel arrangements for both domestic and international travel.” Prosecutors said he was not a licensed travel agent and was operating as a “de facto” agent.
Arteaga’s clients included his friends, business contacts, acquaintances and their referrals who believed he could get them good deals on flights, hotel rooms and tickets to amusement parks, according to court documents.
Prosecutors said Arteaga used some of the money to cover the cost of travel arrangements for other clients — a tactic that “delayed discovery of the scheme” since it appeared as though he was following through on his promises. He also used the cash to pay his mortgage, take out short-term loans, pay credit card and cable bills, buy groceries and cover the cost of nursing home expenses, the government said.
According to court filings, two of Arteaga’s victims were longtime friends with whom he and his wife had previously taken several vacations together.
The couple, identified in court documents as P.C. and A.C., reportedly told Arteaga in 2018 about their plans to book a world tour by private plane with Road Scholar, a nonprofit travel company that plans educational trips for adults.
Arteaga had booked previous trips for them, prosecutors said, and the couple trusted him when he said the Road Scholar trip would cost about $100,000 but he could get a discounted price of $60,000. According to court filings, Arteaga told them to pay him $20,000 in five check payments and wire the remaining $40,000.
P.C. and A.C. wired him the funds from their financial adviser but soon heard from other friends that Arteaga had taken their money without booking the trips, prosecutors said.
Road Scholar had no record of the couple’s booking when they called, according to the government, and the nonprofit said it didn’t offer discounts like the one Arteaga claimed he could get.
When the couple confronted Arteaga, he reportedly said he delayed booking the trip out of concern for P.C.’s health.
Prosecutors said P.C. and Arteaga’s wife had “bonded while going through treatment for the same health condition.” But the couple had not said anything about delaying the trip because of P.C.’s health, which the government called a “ruse” by Arteaga to cover his tracks.
Arteaga is accused of using the money he got from the couple to book trips for other victims, refund his victims or pay for trips for himself.
The alleged scheme lasted until January 2019 and Arteaga was charged in October 2021. Court documents show he was arrested in November and released on a $10,000 bond.
Arteaga waived his right to an indictment and pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud around the same time.
In his sentencing memorandum, Arteaga’s lawyer said he faced disappointment and rebuke from his adult children and parents when he told them what happened. His marriage to his high school sweetheart has also suffered, his attorney said.
Arteaga has sleep apnea, asthma, diabetes, hypertension and heart problems that caused congestive heart failure and resulted in him needing a pacemaker, according to sentencing documents. Arteaga’s lawyer pointed to his health problems and several other factors, including his mental health and lack of criminal history, in a bid for leniency.
He requested a prison sentence of one day followed by a period of home detention.
The recommended federal sentencing guidelines given Arteaga’s history and characteristics, however, fell between 33 and 41 months, court documents state.
In issuing a 36-month sentence for Arteaga, the judge recommended he serve his time at a facility close to home in Houston. Arteaga was ordered to surrender before 11:15 a.m. on April 20 and will be on supervised release for three years after he gets out.