But rather than arrange vacations, the pair used an elaborate scheme to fleece hundreds of customers of hundreds of thousands of dollars that they used to buy their luxury Burlington County home and fatten their own bank accounts, the state said.
A grand jury handed up a 13-count indictment against Turner, 41, and Bernstein, 43, on Friday, Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa said today.
The charges include one count each of first-degree conspiracy and one count each of first-degree money laundering. Those charges each carry a 10- to 20-year prison term, and the money laundering charges carry fines and penalties of up to $1 million. Turner and Bernstein are also each charged with two counts of second-degree theft by deception, which carries prison terms of five to 10 years and a fine of up to $150,000.
In addition, Turner and Bernstein were charged with several counts of third-degree failure to file a state income tax return.
“The defendants allegedly tricked people out of their hard-earned money, promising vacation deals that they knew did not exist,” Chiesa said. “Because of the large sums of money involved, which they allegedly laundered, they will face lengthy prison sentences if convicted.”
Turner and Bernstein allegedly laundered more than $700,000 in criminal proceeds from their travel club victims through two personal bank accounts and used the money to buy their home in Marlton, the state said. The home was assessed at $751,300 in 2011, according to public records
Calls to Turner’s and Bernstein’s attorneys were not immediately returned.
The indictment follows a more than four-year investigation by the civil and criminal divisions of the Attorney General’s Office covering more than 11 travel company names. The state said Turner and Bernstein played a game of cat-and-mouse with would-be travelers as the duo shut down one company and re-opened under another name, leaving behind nothing but empty promises for more than 850 customers who filed complaints with the Division of Consumer Affairs.
The travel clubs offered steeply discounted vacations to members if they’d purchase vacation club memberships that typically ranged in price from $2,200 and $6,500, the state said.
The Star-Ledger’s Bamboozled column, which has chronicled Turner’s exploits since 2010, spoke to several customers who paid as much as $9,000.
Whatever price they paid, consumers never received the deals, the state said.
Turner and Bernstein allegedly opened and closed at least 11 travel businesses, including Dreamworks Vacation Club, Bentley Travel, Modern Destinations Unlimited, Blue Water Gateway, Five Points Travel Company and Vacation Clubs LLC. They also allegedly did business under other names, including La Bonne Vie.
Three more companies, Away We Go Promotions, Travel Deals and VIP Executives, were added to the investigations after the companies were linked to Turner and/or Bernstein by the Bamboozled column.
In February 2011, Turner agreed to a settlement of more than $3 million with Consumer Affairs. The settlement — on which Turner never paid a penny, officials said — included nearly $2.2 million in restitution for about 500 consumers. The settlement also barred Turner from working in the travel business in New Jersey.
In July 2011, Turner was charged with one count of theft by deception, and the state seized assets including eight bank accounts, five luxury cars and a speedboat, and it put a lien on the Turner home in Marlton.
Turner’s reach wasn’t limited to New Jersey. The Star-Ledger has previously reported that over the past several years, consumers in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New Hampshire complained to those states’ attorneys general about almost identical travel businesses allegedly linked to Turner.
Consumers who lost money to Turner’s companies called the criminal charges satisfying.
Mike Hagan paid $3,000 to Travel Deals by credit card, and was supposed to pay an additional $2,100 in installments using automatic payments from his checking account. He stopped the automatic payments when he did some research and suspected something wasn’t right with the company.
“In this country justice prevails,” Hagan said. “He just pilfered tons and tons from people. It’s a question of his boldness and his deceit. It was done with pure malice and intent to defraud the public.”
Joseph Riccardi paid $598 to Away We Go Promotions in 2009 for a “free” cruise, but he was always told his requested dates were never available, he said. Ever since, his daughter-in-law, Tracey Della Pesca, has been trying to get that money back.
“I think it’s about time that he’s held accountable for his actions,” Della Pesca said. “He’s a conniver and he screwed a lot of people over. He deserves everything that he gets.”