A Pennsylvania man has pleaded guilty to four counts of mail fraud in an "unholy" scheme to defraud church members out of $423,000 for non-existent Christian pilgrimage trips.
John B. Baird, who operated the travel agency Christian Pilgrim Tours Inc, admitted to masterminding the scheme which marketed trips to elderly and retired Christians to places of religious sacrifice in Europe and the Middle East.
Baird canceled tours to religious sites in Rome, Israel, France, Greece, Poland, Bosnia and Turkey, without providing refunds to at least 138 victims.
According to KYW-AM, if the case went to trial, prosecutors would have presented evidence that Baird enlisted the help of unwitting priests and church leaders to help solicit his victims between April 2004 and February 2007.
Baird also used Catholic magazine advertisements to lure customers, and created travel brochures promising them a full refund if the trip was not canceled due to "travel warnings, acts of war, acts of God or terrorism."
The U.S. Attorney's Office says Baird corresponded with all of victims via post, sending advertisements, flight details and payment receipts by mail.
He also encouraged his victims to mail their checks to him directly and far in advance for the full price of the trip, promising them a discount.
Prosecutors say, rather than using the money collected to pay for the trips, Baird used the majority for personal expenses.
Sentencing is scheduled for May 7, with Baird facing a maximum sentence of 80 years imprisonment, and a fine of up to $1 million.