Out in the Cold: Seniors demand refund from Miami employee for cancelled Alaskan cruise

(WSVN) - They paid thousands of dollars to a Miami city employee for a dream vacation. The trip, though, never happened. Now a group of seniors are begging the city for both answers and their money. 7’s Kevin Ozebek investigates in this special assignment report, “Out in the Cold.”

It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime.

Charlean Cobb: “I was just so excited when the Alaska trip came up. I couldn’t wait.”

Charlean Cobb and Batuka Williams took jobs as security guards to pay for an Alaskan cruise. The trip was organized by the leader of a senior program at Miami’s Charles Hadley Park called Seniors on the Move.

Batuka Williams, Seniors on the Move member: “I’ve always wanted to go to Alaska. We went shopping. We went to get our winter clothes.”

Katherine and Joseph Ellis were going to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary on the trip.

Katherine Ellis, Seniors on the Move member: “I was excited, and we wanted to make sure it was special.”

The group was supposed to cruise around Alaska last year, well before the pandemic hit.

But Antavius Howell, the director of Charles Hadley Park and leader of the Seniors on the Move program, told them the trip was off.

According to the seniors, Howell said some people backed out of the trip, leaving the group too small.

Katherine Ellis: “I was very disappointed, and in fact, I went home, and I cried.”

Batuka Williams: “I was so disappointed. I was hurt.”

Charlean Cobb: “We were all heartbroken, but he said, ‘Don’t worry. We will get our money, we will be refunded our money.'”

The seniors thought they would be quickly refunded the more than $2,000 they each paid for the trip. That’s because they bought added insurance for $229.

But they were never given a travel insurance policy, or any documents from a cruise line or travel agency.

All they have are handwritten receipts signed by Howell’s assistant, Robin Benyard, who is a City of Miami Recreation aide.

Charlean Cobb: “We’ve been waiting two years to get the money, and all we’ve been told when we asked him about it was, he’s working on it. ‘I’m working on it.’ I mean, we have been more than patient.”

Some of the seniors did get partial refunds, but the money didn’t come from a company. Instead, Howell either handed them cash or transferred money from his bank account into theirs.

Then in July, Howell unexpectedly died, which is now forcing the seniors to take their fight directly to the city.

Katherine Ellis: “Give us our money back. We deserve — we’ve worked hard all our lives.”

To find out where their money went, we tried to speak to Robin Benyard, who signed those receipts.

Kevin Ozebek: “Robin, can we just ask you a few questions? Please?”

But she bolted into a park building when she learned we work for 7News.

We pushed the city for answers, but the only thing a city spokesperson would tell us is, “Due to an ongoing investigation, we cannot provide any comments about this case at this time.”

Charlean Cobb: “Shame on you! Two-thousand to $3,000. That’s a lot of money for no one to say anything.”

Around the time we started asking the city questions, the Miami Police Department’s Public Corruption Task Force started investigating.

But since these seniors still don’t have answers or their money, their anger keeps growing toward the Parks and Recreation Department.

Batuka Williams: “I need that money, especially right now, so stand up and do something about it for us seniors at Hadley Park.”

7News will stay on top of this, and we’ll keep pushing to get them at least an answer to what happened to their money.

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