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    Tampa man accused of swindling youth group

    Church group members charter two planes to take them to Italy. Or so they think.

    By GRAHAM BRINK

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 1, 2001


    TAMPA -- More than 800 members of the national Youth Arise church group planned a trip to Rome last August to see the pope and participate in World Youth Day.

    They washed cars, worked odd jobs and tapped savings accounts to raise the needed funds.

    Then a Tampa man stole $370,000 of the money they had raised, authorities said.

    Thomas Allen Hastings faces nine counts of wire fraud, according to an indictment released Wednesday by the U.S. Attorney's Office.

    "A lot of people had to pull together at the last minute to counter what that jerk did," said Simplex Tours president Robert Whitcraft, who helped organize the flights.

    In April, a company Simplex Tours had lined up to fly the youths to Rome went into receivership. Simplex Tours, a subsidiary of National Advanced Computer Systems, contacted Hastings, who was affiliated with Premier Sports Tours in Tampa.

    Hastings could not be reached for comment, and officials with Premier Sports Tours did not return phone messages.

    Hastings said he could secure the two Boeing 747s the group needed for the August trip, the indictment said. Hastings later told Simplex that he had negotiated contracts with two airlines, Corsair and Air Atlantic Icelandic. Simplex sent Hastings two deposits totaling $370,000 to secure the planes, the indictment said.

    "That's when things began to fall apart," Whitcraft said.

    Hastings refused to send the right contracts or other pertinent paperwork, according to the indictment. He sent bogus wire transfer forms and two airplane charter contracts that he knew were null and void, the indictment said.

    Hastings eventually asked for more money to pay for the charters. When Whitcraft balked, Hastings said Simplex had violated its agreement and forfeited the deposits. Hastings took the money for his own use, the indictment said.

    "At that point we were in real trouble," Whitcraft said. "The trip would have had to be canceled if everyone hadn't pulled together."

    Youth Arise is an international Catholic organization that promotes youth evangelization. Members from across the country paid about $1,500 each to spend 10 days in Italy.

    Hastings, 57, has previous arrests in Hillsborough County on charges of filing fraudulent insurance claims, grand theft and ticket scalping.

    - Contact Graham Brink at (813) 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com.

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