- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 31, 2015

FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) - A Utah travel agent has been sentenced to more than five years in prison and ordered to repay almost $300,000 to an Arkansas high school band that was intended to go toward a trip to Hawaii.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (https://bit.ly/19FcQwd ) reports that while in Las Vegas, 40-year-old Calliope Saaga gambled away funds that were supposed to be used to send students in the Fort Smith Southside High School band on a trip. About 260 students, parents and chaperones were supposed to go on the trip.

Saaga also received a five-year prison term on March 12 in a Missouri federal court, and was ordered to repay more than $700,000 given to him for Hawaiian trips by the Willard School Band Boosters in Missouri and the Spirit of America Marching Band in eastern Arkansas, as well as the Fort Smith band.

The travel agent apologized to Fort Smith Southside High School officials at the sentencing hearing Monday, and promised to repay the money.

“I will work until the day I die to pay this back,” he said.

According to the Fort Smith school’s band director, Sean Carrier, Saaga sent him an email in April 2012 confessing that he had gambled away the band’s money. U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes III said that court records show that Saaga withdrew $263,000 from automatic teller machines at four Las Vegas casinos over a few days.

Carrier and Holmes said at the hearing that many people had sacrificed to raise the money, including a woman who sold her truck and others who took money from their savings and retirement accounts.

“The heartache he created for these students is a hard lesson for him to learn,” Holmes said.

The judge received several letters in support of Saaga, including one from the Intermountain Specialized Abuse Treatment Center in Salt Lake City, which said he was being treated for a gambling addiction, depression and anxiety. Ifo Pili, the bishop of Saaga’s Mormon congregation in Eagle Mountain, Utah, said in a letter that Saaga had been serving the community and church since the thefts were revealed.

“He has been an example to all of us of what it means to face the consequences of your choices with humility, yet dignity and fortitude,” Pili wrote.


Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, https://www.arkansasonline.com

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