SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) - A scam artist was sentenced to 5 years in prison for selling phony travel packages to Jewish and Greek Orthodox senior citizens who wanted to go to Cuba for religious and cultural reasons. Ralph Adam Rendon told his victims that the Treasury Department canceled the trips and he kept their money to buy a Mercedes, pay his rent and hire a divorce lawyer, state prosecutors say.
Rendon, 33, stole $154,000 from 41 people, including 20 old folks who responded to his travel agency ads in religious magazines; about half of his victims were Californians, Attorney General Jerry Brown said.
Some of the victims wanted to visit a Greek Orthodox church that Fidel Castro allowed to be built in Cuba, and hoped to offer humanitarian assistance to members of the community. Cuba is believed to have a few thousand Orthodox believers, only a few dozen of whom are Greek.
The Jewish Americans' trips were also for humanitarian purposes, to help the small Jewish community in Cuba.
The victims paid up to $4,000 apiece, Brown says, then Rendon told them, "As soon as we receive word from the U.S. government that the freeze on religious programs in Cuba has been lifted, we will allow you to travel to Cuba at any date of your choosing."
Rendon's ads appeared in the "Orthodox Observer," "Jewish Journal" and "Jewish Life." A spokesperson for Brown's office said, "We are not aware of any trips offered to the Catholic community."
Rendon was sentenced this week to 5 years in prison; as part of his plea agreement additional fraud charges related to a second scheme will not be pursued.
While out on bail for the 2006 travel fraud, Rendon started a second company, London Exchange, which charged people $500 to apply for credit cards that didn't exist, prosecutors said.
Rendon pleaded guilty to grand theft.
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