For some, "trip of a lifetime" turns into no trip at all

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime -- a religious experience. Hundreds of church members signed up and paid. But instead of the trip of a lifetime -- it ended up costing folks thousands.

The Vatican is home to the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's Basilica and some of the world's most famous paintings and sculptures.

So when a travel company called "Christian Pilgrims" began advertising in church bulletins about the trip of a lifetime, it was very alluring.

"The travel company arranged for trips to Rome, Poland and other religious spots in Europe," U.S. Postal Inspector Al Herzog said.

The cost: Between $3,000 and $10,000 -- depending on the tour.

The founder of Christian Pilgrims, 75-year-old John Baird, ran many successful excursions.

"In brochures he portrayed himself to be very well-connected to the Vatican. Some of these brochures not only had pictures of him from previous trips that did happen but pictures of himself with Pope John Paul," Herzog said.

Then, something went wrong.

"At some point in time, he began to encounter personal and business financial problems. When that happened, trips didn`t happen," Herzog said.

Customers were left with no trip and no refund. In fact, more than 50 victims lost $400,000 dollars.

"Some of these people actually went to the airport the day they were supposed to leave and found out that there was no trip to go on because there was no one to meet them there with their tickets," Herzog said.

One lesson from this case: Always report situations like this one to authorities, including postal inspectors.

"This case started with people making complaints to us, people who lost money. Those people saved all of their documentation. They made notes of their correspondence with the defendant and all of that information was invaluable in the investigating case in proving that people were lied to," Herzog said.

Because of the case, Postal Inspectors were able to build with victim complaints, Baird is now serving a five-year federal prison sentence and has been ordered to pay restitution to the victims.