Holy Land tourists file past the Church of the Nativity, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem
Tourists file past the Church of the Nativity, regarded as the birthplace of Christ, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. Reuters

John Baird promised the trip of a lifetime to his devoutly religious clients. In the end, however, the customers lost thousands of dollars and never made it on their vacations to the Holy Land.

Instead, Baird, the owner and operator of Christian Pilgrim Tours Inc., lived off their money, paying for baseball tickets, groceries and his mortgage, according to federal agents.

The 74-year-old, of Elkins Park in the suburbs of Philadelphia, used his age to prey on other elderly clients, many with limited means. He sold them trips to holy sites in the Middle East and other places around the world between 2006 and 2007, taking over $400,000 from at least 138 customers for seven trips which were subsequently canceled.

With little exception, Baird refused refunds promised to the victims, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. He plead guilty to fraud charges in January and was sentenced to five years in prison on Wednesday.

"You preyed on people who were poor, of modest means, who were vulnerable and elderly, and you lied to them," U.S. district judge Michael Baylson said in the sentencing.

Baird put advertisements for several of the trips in Catholic magazines and enlisted church leaders to encourage their congregations to use his company.

He filed for bankruptcy in October 2006 and blamed his subsequent actions on bad advice from his lawyers. He said they told him to hand over his business while he cared for his sick wife.

The judge, however, rejected this excuse and ordered the beleaguered tour operator to pay $410,340 in restitution and serve three years of supervised release in addition to the five-year prison term.

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