A husband and wife convicted of stealing thousands of dollars from high school band students and their parents here in San Diego were sentenced to two years in prison each and will have to make restitution payments in the years that follow.
It was an emotional day for students and their parents, who have been dealing with the Atlanta-based travel-tour company Harmony International since January of 2016 when one of its owners, Brad Matheson, pitched the trip in band classrooms via a Skype conference call.
In January, Brad and his wife Margie Matheson, a co-owner of Harmony International, pleaded guilty to three felony counts each of theft, failure to provide refunds and failure to maintain a trust account for funds in excess of $950.
On Tuesday, parents and students testified one-by-one and explained the harm the Mathesons had caused in their lives. This was the first time the parents had seen the Mathesons face-to-face.
“You stole our dreams of traveling to Japan,” parent Sandie Ridge said, “We have nothing to show for what should have been an amazing trip and we have lost the equivalent of a year of college tuition money.”
Last May, NBC 7 Responds reported the Mathesons had promised to send dozens of local band students from San Marcos, Del Norte, Eastlake, and Mission Hills high schools to Japan last summer to take part in band concerts, explore the country and attend Disneyland Tokyo, if they paid over $3,600 for each participant.
San Marcos High School Sophomore Aaron Munson said he and other students were excited about the trip, especially the opportunity to go to the world-famous theme park.
“It was so expensive, some people worked a lot, took so many extra hours to pay for this,” Munson said.
Months before students were set to depart, parents and students learned the trip was canceled and refunds were unlikely, due to Harmony International filing for bankruptcy.
“You stole from me at the worst time in my life,” Ronald Faulkner, a parent of a Del Norte High School student said, “When I booked this trip I was 53 years old, working 10-12 hours a day with a terminal lung disease and was trying to do something special for my family. And you stole from me.”
Faulkner said it wasn’t an exaggeration that the trip to Japan was thought to be his family’s last vacation together.
“The business model is basically, steal from kids and their families,” Faulkner said.
Parents and students turned to NBC 7 Responds for help and through our investigation, we found they were not alone. Band and choir groups in states across the country were also owed thousands of dollars after trips they scheduled through the Mathesons were canceled and refunds were not issued.
Several parents said the Mathesons had threatened legal action through emails, demanding they not talk to the media or attorneys inquiring about the trip. One of those parents was Brandy Martinoli.
“He [Brad Matheson] threatened me twice, via email, and if I did not delete my posts, he and his lawyer would press charges against me with the San Diego District Attorney’s office,” Brandy said, “Ironic, isn’t it Brad?”
Last November, the California Attorney General's office, and the San Diego County District Attorney’s Consumer Protection Unit announced they had filed over 90 felony counts against Brad and Margie Matheson. The charges ranged from theft to failing to register as a seller of travel in the state of California.
The Florida couple was extradited to San Diego and at their arraignment hearing, an attorney representing Margie Matheson told NBC 7 Responds the criminal charges were a “misunderstanding”.
“You took our son’s [high school] senior trip away and we can never get that back,” Ridge said.
The Judge presiding over the case Tuesday told parents and students he was sentencing the Mathesons to the maximum sentence under their plea deal, two years in prison each. The Judge also said the Mathesons will be required to make over $69,000 in restitution payments to victims, once out of jail.
“The Mathesons thought they could get away with preying on our high school students and their families. The Mathesons could not have been more wrong,” a news release from California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office read Tuesday, “Today’s sentencing should remind everyone that the California Department of Justice is committed to protecting consumers.”
NBC 7 Responds obtained transcripts of court testimony before the San Diego County Grand Jury that revealed the couple may have spent Japan trip funds on personal expenses and the Matheson’s second business, Harmony Yacht Vacations.
Neither Brad or Margie Matheson made any statements in court, nor did they apologize to the victims present.