John Baird was jailed for five years after pocketing money from 138 customers
Many of his devoutly religious clients were elderly and of limited means
He advertised in Catholic magazines and enlisted church leaders to endorse his trips
Instead he used their money to pay for groceries, baseball tickets and his mortgage
By KERRY MCQUEENEY
He promised a trip of a lifetime to his devoutly religious clients.
However, customers who handed money over to the owner of a travel company were left out of pocket when their trips to the Holy Land were cancelled.
Instead John Baird, the owner and operator of a religious tour operator, used their money to pay for groceries, baseball tickets, his mortgage and legal fees, federal agents said.
Baird was the owner and operator of a travel company which offered trips to holy sites in the Middle East, such as Bethlehem (pictured) in Israel
The 74-year-old, of Elkins Park in Philadelphia, was jailed for five years after he pocketed more than $400,000 from 138 customers - many of them elderly and with limited means - for trips that never happened.
He was also ordered to pay his victims $410,000 in compensation, it was reported.
Baird was the owner and operator of travel company Christian Pilgrim Tours Inc, which offered trips to holy sites in the Middle East and other place, according to Philly.com.
Between April 2006 and 2007 he took more than $400,000 from 138 customers for seven trips which were subsequently cancelled.
With a few exceptions, Baird failed to deliver refunds promised to victims.
After pleading guilty in January this year to fraud, Baird was given a five-year prison sentence.
According to Philly.com, Baird was described as profiting from the dreams of his victims and delivered 'heartache and disappointment'.
In the dock: Baird (not pictured) was jailed for five years for the fraud
U.S. district judge Michael Baylson said as he sentenced him: 'You preyed on people who were poor, of modest means, who were vulnerable and elderly, and you lied to them.'
Baird's trips were advertised in Catholic magazines and priests or other church leaders were sometimes enlisted to encourage congregation members to book with his company.
Customers paid Baird directly by sending him cheques for, almost always, the full cost of the trip far in advance of the departure date, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Diviny.
Prosecutor Diviny said that some of the victims had even introduced friends to Baird's company - something which they felt guilty about.
Baird's company filed for bankruptcy in October 2006 - one day before the departure date for a planned trip to Poland he was offering.
In his defence, Baird blamed his actions on bad advice from his lawyers.
He claimed in court that his attorneys told him he should focus on caring for his sick wife while they would look after his travel business.
According to Philly.com, he said his lawyers later advised him to take the business into bankruptcy, adding: 'I had ineffective counsel. If they had done their job, I wouldn't be here today.'
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2179197/John-Laird-Christian-Pilgrims-operator-stole-400-000-organising-tours-Holy-Land-happened.html#ixzz21vHfowuk