Bamboozled EXTRA: Couple plead guilty in travel scheme

Daryl Turner, the man behind a web of fraudulent travel companies that scammed hundreds of New Jersey residents with false promises of dream vacations, is headed to prison.

He pleaded guilty yesterday in Burlington County Court to a charge of second-degree theft by deception.

Turner admitted that he pitched phony vacation travel membership packages to customers, stealing millions of dollars from would-be travelers.

Under the agreement, the state will recommend that he be sentenced to seven years in state prison. He also must enter a consent judgment to pay restitution of approximately $2.6 million.

“He deserves to be in jail. He’s a robber,” said Alyssa Geibel of Somerville, who with her husband Scott paid $600 in 2009 for a “free cruise” to Away We Go Travel, one of Turner’s companies. “He used it to buy cars and an expensive home. He’s a scammer.”

Turner’s wife, Robyn Bernstein, who was implicated in the scams, also pleaded guilty to theft by deception. The state will recommend that she be sentenced to a term of five years of probation.

Under their plea agreements, Turner and Bernstein agreed to forfeit their home in Marlton and other assets seized in the investigation, including various bank accounts.

They will be sentenced Jan. 10.

Turner and Bernstein had faced charges including money laundering, that could have led to 20 years in prison and fines exceeding $1 million each if convicted.

The state alleged that travel clubs owned and operated by Turner and Bernstein promised exotic trips to would-be travelers, but the pair left consumers out in the cold.

The criminal charges said the couple allegedly laundered more than $700,000 from their illegitimate businesses to buy their Marlton home, which public records showed was worth $751,300 in 2011. The state put a lien against the home when Turner was arrested in July 2011, and it seized eight bank accounts, five luxury cars including a Ferrari and a Bentley, and a speedboat.

The businesses reportedly shut their doors after taking in thousands of dollars from customers– only to reopen under different names. Company names included Dreamworks Vacation Club, Bentley Travel, Modern Destinations Unlimited, Blue Water Gateway, Five Points Travel Company, La Bonne Vie Travel and Vacation Clubs LLC, and the all ran similar schemes, the state said.

In February 2011, before the criminal charges, Turner signed a settlement with the Division of Consumer Affairs. He agreed to pay more than $3 million, including $2.2 million in restitution to customers.

He never paid a penny, the state said.

Though the agreement barred Turner from the travel business in New Jersey, The Star-Ledger’s Bamboozled column linked him to similarly run travel companies that were opened after the settlement. Complaints from consumers flooded in from neighboring states, including Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New Hampshire, reporting experiences that mirrored what consumers reported of the New Jersey businesses.

To date, New Jersey has received more than 700 complaints from customers. Some paid hundreds of dollars. Others paid thousands. They all say they received nothing for their money.

“We hope the criminal convictions will result in the return of money to the consumers whom Turner and Bernstein defrauded,” said Eric T. Kanefsky, director of the state Division of Consumer Affairs.

“Turner was a master of the slick sales pitch, and he used his powers of deception to steal $2.6 million from customers of his travel companies,” said Acting Attorney General John Hoffman. “This guilty plea serves justice by ensuring that Turner will be sentenced to a substantial prison term. He also is required to pay his victims restitution, which will be funded in part through the forfeiture of his home and other significant assets seized as a result of our investigation.”

Mike Hagan, who paid $3,000 by credit card to Turner’s Travel Deals, was supposed to pay an additional $2,100 in installments using automatic payments from his checking account. With help from the Bamboozled column, those payments were stopped, but Hagan never recouped his initial $3,000.

He said he was glad to hear of the court action.

“It took long enough time, but justice prevails. It’s a long, slow, arduous process, but it means a lot,” Hagan said. “This guy, his intentions were evil from the start. It’s a shame because there were a lot of people who really thought they were signing on to a great deal.”