Ellen Wolfe, a retired parochial school teacher, received a muff and other gifts last Christmas to prepare her for a winter journey to China.
Now Mrs. Wolfe says she has little hope of seeing the Great Wall or recovering the more than $2,000 she paid in advance for the trip.
Mrs. Wolfe was one of 46 people, mostly from the greater Baltimore area, who were stood up by Pilgrim Journeys, a tour-booking company in Friday Harbor, Wash. The group was recruited by Catholic priests who had taken a Pilgrim-sponsored trip to China the year before.
Patrick W. Crowley, a Seattle lawyer monitoring investigations into Pilgrim's activities, says he has received more than 75 calls from priests and lay people in different parts of the country making similar complaints about the company. Together, their losses add up to as much as $200,000, he said.
Mrs. Wolfe first heard about the tour last spring from the Rev. Michael Carrion, who was then an associate pastor at her parish, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Church in Woodlawn.
Father Carrion said he and his brother, also a priest, had taken a China tour with Pilgrim in January and February of 1991. They were part of a contingent of priests who had received Pilgrim tour brochures in the mail, offering a trip at a little more than $1,000 each. The company told the priests that they could go again for free, he said, if they could organize larger groups for later tours at the regular, higher rates.
Father Carrion, his brother, the Rev. Patrick Carrion of St. John the Evangelist Church in Columbia, and a priest from Wilmington, Del., recruited 46 people for a 14-day trip that was to leave Jan. 16 of this year.
Ten days before departure date, Father Carrion got a letter from Pilgrim's lawyer, canceling the trip and offering to reschedule. A later trip "was not possible for some of our people and really not acceptable for any of them," said Father Carrion, who is now at another parish, St. Margaret's in Bel Air.
They wanted their money back.
But in a Feb. 7 letter, Father Carrion said, the company lawyer said Pilgrim was ceasing operations "due to the present economic conditions of the corporation." There was no mention of a refund.
The tourists' losses varied according to whether they had planned to leave for the tour from Baltimore, New York or San Francisco.
A tourist who had planned to leave from Baltimore loses $2,121, Father Carrion said, plus $125.45 in non-refundable airline tickets for a first-leg flight from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to Kennedy International Airport in New York. The 46 people have losses that total about $96,000, Father Carrion said.
The priests were to have gone for free -- receiving one ticket for each 15 paying tourists. Father Carrion said they had spent hundreds of dollars of their own money on promotion and administrative costs, however. Upon seeing their plans dissolved, the priests contacted a lawyer for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, who referred them to Mr. Crowley, a lawyer for the Archdiocese of Seattle. Mr. Crowley said he had received complaints about Pilgrim from New York; Scranton, Pa.; New Jersey; Sacramento, Calif.; and elsewhere. And, he said, "there's got to be more."
Depending on the outcome of investigations of Pilgrim by the Washington state attorney general and by the sheriff of San Juan County, Wash., Mr. Crowley said, he would consider a civil suit on behalf of the bilked tour groups.
A lawyer for Pilgrim has indicated the company might file for bankruptcy, Mr. Crowley said. "I really don't know if these people are going to get their money back."
Allen Mason, listed on the Pilgrim letterhead as its president, referred all inquiries to his lawyer, Kenneth Kanev, in Seattle. Mr. Kanev is not the same lawyer who wrote the letters to Baltimore canceling the tour.
Mr. Kanev declined to say much about Pilgrim. But he did say that his client continues to run another tour-booking company.
Pilgrim is closed, Mr. Kanev said, and probably out of money. As for the prospect of the China tourists recovering their money, Mr. Kanev said, "It's not good at all."
Janet Reis, an assistant attorney general in the consumer protection division of the Washington attorney general's office, said it appears Mr. Mason failed to comply with state law requiring travel, tour and charter businesses to set up trust accounts or bond policies for refunding money from canceled tours.
At the moment, Father Carrion is advising would-be travelers to check whether their tour company is bonded or has provisions for refunding payments.
The reaction of his tour group to the loss "was like a death," Father Carrion said. People couldn't believe it at first, then became depressed, he said, "and then the anger."
His former parishioner in Woodlawn, Mrs. Wolfe, said she didn't blame the fiasco on the priests, who kept all receipts from Pilgrim.
Mrs. Wolfe expects to make other vacation plans but still rues the loss of what was to have been her first trip to Asia. When she first heard about it, Mrs. Wolfe said, "it seemed like a great value."