Fake theme park tickets a lucrative, deadly trade
An informant is found slain. Authorities suspect murder in the ongoing fight to stop the scams worth millions.
Published September 3, 2005
ORLANDO - Roberto Alvarez was jealous of how much time his girlfriend spent with the head of a crime family that dealt in millions of dollars of contraband. So he became an informer for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Not long after talking with agents, the 38-year-old Alvarez was shot to death. His body was found in a pool of blood 15 feet from the bus he drove in his job shuttling tourists to theme parks.
Alvarez was helping investigators track down theme park tickets illegally purchased with fake or stolen credit cards.
A black market for park tickets has grown up in this theme park mecca, with illegal transactions occurring every day in the heart of its tourist district.
Detective Kelly Boaz of the Orange County Sheriff's Office said the sale of illegal tickets is a multimillion-dollar business.
"There is a lot of money out there in this type of activity," said Boaz, who works in a seven-person special unit dedicated to the theme parks.
This underground market is a consequence of annual ticket price increases and the popularity of very valuable multiday passes. A single-day ticket to a park costs almost $60. A four-day park hopper, granting a person entry into all four Disney parks in Orlando, can cost $220.
"The theme parks have always been an incredible experience that some people treat as a commodity," said Universal Orlando spokesman Tom Schroder. "So as long as there have been theme parks and theme park tickets, there have been people trying to take advantage of that."
The black market also has been fueled by the proliferation of booths selling discounted tickets in almost every major hotel and restaurant, or in front of every tacky T-shirt shop.
The booths have increased in recent years from several dozen to 200 or 300. Many are run by time share companies that use the tickets as an incentive to get tourists to see their properties. The area's major theme parks - Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando - often sell tickets discounted 10 percent off the gate price to time share companies, AAA and other tourism-related businesses. International tour companies get an even better deal - as much as 20 percent off.
Those 20 percent-off contracts are limited and highly coveted. So companies with the international contracts, in violation of their agreements with the parks, often sell their tickets to middlemen ticket brokers or to booths. Those people then sell the tickets to the general public.
"It's all a big game out there," said Franklin Fox, who was once described by law enforcement as the ringleader of illegal ticket brokers. "Everybody knows what's going on."
Law enforcement agencies have tried to stop black market ticket brokers much like they would drug dealers. They have targeted street-level sellers in an effort to catch those higher up the chain. They have used informers, surveillance and undercover agents posing as illegal ticket scalpers or clueless tourists.
"We have been trying for the last few years to work our way up to higher folks, but they've isolated themselves so well and have been under the radar for so long, it was difficult," Boaz said.
Some of the shady dealers sell multiday park tickets to tour groups at discounts, provided the groups bring the passes back at the end of a single day. The passes are then resold at discount to other tour groups the next day. That is a second-degree misdemeanor for a first-time offender under Florida law, punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.
Others, known by police as "walkers," target tourists, most likely foreigners they perceive as gullible, near the ticket booths at the theme parks. They then sell multiday park passes that have days already used up, Boaz said.
Fox operated several booths that sold tickets to tourists along International Drive and U.S. 192, yet he didn't have a contract with any of the parks. A close friend, himself caught in a sting operation last year, agreed to cooperate with authorities. He persuaded Fox to purchase 210 tickets that supposedly were illegally printed by a worker inside Universal Studios, according to court records. Fox, 70, took the bait and was charged with six counts of dealing in stolen property. Detectives seized $250,000 worth of theme park tickets from his office.
Fox pleaded no contest to two counts of petty theft last year and was sentenced to a year of probation, which was terminated in June. Alvarez started talking with authorities in late 2000 about schemes run by Victor Aquino, who used fake or stolen credit cards to buy theme park tickets. The operation was made up of Aquino's family members and associates who came from South Florida.
It included Aquino's teenage son, Amin, who along with a former pizza cook, Mario Locasio, would buy tickets with stolen or fake credit cards provided by Victor Aquino. Aquino would then sell the tickets to Roberto Alvarez's girlfriend, Marilu Clement, who then supplied brokers like Fox, or different travel agencies, according to depositions from Clement's criminal case.
Alvarez was gunned down in July 2001. The group's schemes fell apart as members of the operation, one by one, were arrested in 2002.
Clement currently is serving probation for fraud. Amin Aquino was sentenced to 31/2 years in prison for fraud, while his father, Victor, was sentenced to 51/2 years in prison for trying to run over a sheriff's deputy with a Mercedes.
Alvarez's slaying case is still open and unsolved.
"The underlying fact of the investigation into his death indicates ... that's the motive ... because he was informing for the FDLE," homicide investigator Richard Lallament of the Orange County Sheriff's Office said in a 2003 deposition. "It was made to look like a botched robbery but nothing is missing. It just doesn't make any sense."