JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Juan Arteaga is headed straight to prison for fraud. The mastermind of a nationwide travel scam was sentenced to three years behind bars in federal court Wednesday and was taken into custody immediately after his hearing.
Arteaga pleaded guilty to wire fraud last November and could have faced 20 years behind bars. In court filings, his attorney asked the judge to consider sentencing Arteaga to just one day in jail. But at Wednesday’s sentencing, prosecutors laid out how the 58-year-old ripped off at least 134 victims – stealing nearly $ 800,000 from them. And in some cases, families were left stranded because Arteaga did not book the travel that he’d been paid for.
The News4JAX I-TEAM started investigating Arteaga three years ago when he was still living in Jacksonville and before he moved to Texas. As we dug deeper, and as more victims contacted us, we uncovered Arteaga’s scheme involved victims in more than a dozen states and cost families hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Arteaga admitted in November to orchestrating a scheme where he promised friends, business contacts and referrals discounted trips and vacations, but after receiving their money, he spent it on himself.
During his sentencing hearing Wednesday, with some victims sitting in the courtroom, Arteaga was emotional as he took the stand and apologized.
“I stand before this court to express how sorry I am for my actions and for the pain and suffering I’ve caused to all the victims and my family and friends,” he said. “What I did was wrong, and it was not done intentionally to hurt anyone.
“I was still not honest with them. I’m truly remorseful for what I have done. It haunts me on a daily basis and will continue to do so until the day I take my last breath, ”he continued. “My actions have broken me physically and emotionally. My health has suffered. ”
Arteaga’s family and longtime friends testified on his behalf Wednesday.
His daughter said her father is not a monster and is a kind man. She told the court, “We are all human. We all make mistakes. His mistakes are unfortunately plastered for the world to see. ”
Arteaga’s wife of 35 years said her husband is being sentenced “for wrong choices,” and admitted to the judge she was prepared to divorce him, but said her “heart would not let me.”
When it came time to give his sentencing, Judge Harvey Schlesinger ordered Arteaga to federal prison for three years followed by three years of supervised release and to pay $ 784,364 in restitution. The Department of Justice will determine which victims will receive portions of that restitution.
The judge’s order for Arteaga to go straight to prison appeared to take Arteaga and his attorney by surprise, but the judge reiterated in court that they knew today was sentencing day.
It’s unclear which prison Arteaga will go to, but his attorney requested a federal prison in Texas because that’s where Arteaga and his family now live.
The I-TEAM’s first investigation into Arteaga was in January 2019 when Nathan Dee recounted how he and family members lost thousands of dollars when they paid Arteaga cash upfront for a family reunion cruise that was never actually booked. In all, they lost around $ 14,000.
After we published our story with Dee, we ended up hearing from more than 70 people from across the country sharing similar stories of being scammed out of thousands of dollars.
Families, couples, and individuals told us how Arteaga required them to pay him in advance to receive big discounts on things like flights, hotels, amusement park tickets and luxury vacations but their trips were never booked, and their money was not returned.
Some said they even received their itineraries from Arteaga, which is why they had no idea there were any issues with their travel. But when they tried to check in at airports, hotels, or cruise ships – only then did they learn they did not have reservations, and nothing had been paid for.
A state investigation into Arteaga later became a federal one led by the FBI.
After its investigation, the FBI charged Arteaga with wire fraud – a charge he admitted to on Nov. 10, 2021.
Court documents outlined how – beginning at least as early as March 2018 and through at least January 2019 – Arteaga operated as a travel agent, despite not being licensed. He received payments from victims through checks and wire transfers and spent that money on things like credit card bills, his mortgage, nursing home expenses and short-term loans.
READ: Juan Arteaga’s plea agreement
The government said he was able to pull off this “sham” travel operation for as long as he did because he operated a pyramid-type scheme – using funds from some victims to purchase travel arrangements for other victims.
The charge of wire fraud involved longtime friends of Arteaga who started talking to him in 2018 about booking an around-the-world trip through Road Scholar. The couple had previously booked travel through Arteaga, and he told them the trip would cost around $ 100,000, but if they paid him the next day, he could get it for $ 60,000. Prosecutors said Arteaga told them to pay him $ 20,000, broken into five check payments, and wire the remaining $ 40,000 to him.
Months later, the couple checked with Road Scholar to see if their trip had been booked. They were told it had not, and also learned that the trip provider did not provide any discounts, including to travel agents. Prosecutors said Arteaga used their money to make travel arrangements for other victims and himself, as well as to repay other travel victims.
Nearly seven full pages of the plea agreement are devoted to listing the victims of the scheme, identifying them by their initials, along with the minimum amounts they are owed in restitution. The amounts ranged from at least $ 300 to at least $ 23,862.
Arteaga’s family would not speak to the I-TEAM after his sentencing Wednesday. And Arteaga himself has never spoken to us or returned our phone calls. When we went to his home in Fort Caroline – which he later sold in a deed in lieu of a foreclosure transaction – he closed his garage door on us without answering our questions.
When we tried to speak with him after his November guilty plea hearing, he ignored us as he left the federal courthouse.
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