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Butler group says it was misled about inauguration trip

Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013 2:44 PM
Last updated Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013 1:17 AM
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When the woman walked into the Butler High School gymnasium and told a crowd of students she was on the phone with President Obama, language arts teacher Carla Clemons knew something was off.

“She came into the assembly and told everyone to be quiet because she had President Obama on the phone,” Clemons said. “She kept talking to us then going back on the phone. It was like he was on hold. President Obama ain’t got time to wait for students to quiet down and be on hold on the phone. That’s when I started doubting.”

A few days before that assembly in mid-January, the woman, Erica Jones, approached Butler about organizing a trip to Obama’s inauguration through her organization DRBJ Legacy Foundation.

Jones said students who paid $135 for a seat on the charter bus would receive a ticket for premier seating at the inauguration and would be entered into a lottery to meet the president.

Students said Jones told them Butler was the only school from Richmond County selected to attend the inauguration. At the assembly Jan. 17, Jones promised a group photo of the school taken that day would hang in Obama’s library at the White House.

According to several people interviewed about the trip, few of the promises Jones made turned out to be true. Parents and students say they traveled through the night to Washington with the promise of ticketed seating only to stand a long away from the president in the bitter cold.

Those who said they were wronged are now demanding answers about how their money was spent and who this person is who misled them.

“We wanted to believe it was all true,” Butler senior Zakiyyah Muhammad said.

Zakiyyah said she realized many of the promises Jones made were far-fetched, but excitement made her believe. At the assembly in mid-January, Jones called Zakiyyah’s name out with a personal message from Obama.

Jones relayed that the first lady received the letters Butler wrote earlier that month and that Michelle Obama read Zakiyyah’s letter out loud at a dinner that week and cried.

“I did believe it,” Zakiyyah said. “I was jumping up and down, I was about to cry.”

Butler Principal Greg Thompson would not provide a contact number for Jones, and he refused to comment on the situation because the inauguration trip “was not a school function.”

Students, however, said they paid their trip fees to the school’s bookkeeper and saw Jones on campus for several days organizing the trip.

After several attempts to reach Jones, she left a voice message late Thursday for an Augusta Chronicle reporter but called from a blocked number and did not leave a contact number. She said the newspaper should contact her legal staff, but she did not leave any contact information for them.

Jones’ organization, DRBJ Legacy Foundation, is not registered with the Georgia Secretary of State’s office or the GuideStar Inc. Web site, which tracks U.S. nonprofits.

Zakiyyah said students got suspicious of Jones when they arrived in Washington around 5 a.m. Jan. 21 after the more than 10-hour trip. About 30 students, two teachers and two parents boarded the bus the day before from the Wal-Mart parking lot on Deans Bridge Road. A separate group with the Legacy Foundation traveled in a second charter bus, they said.

They spent the night driving, listening to music and talking to friends.

Butler junior Taylor Clark said Jones repeatedly told the students on the bus to not let anybody “sabotage their destiny” and that they should not allow negative media portrayals of Butler to affect them.

When they arrived in Washington, students say Jones asked them to take out $15 for a Metrobus pass – an expense no one had budgeted for.

After they took the Metro into the city, Jones went to 12th District Congressman John Barrow’s Washington office, where she said she was picking up the school’s tickets.

The Butler group waited for almost two hours in the cold for Jones to meet them near Barrow’s office, and she did not provide a cellphone number where they could contact her. All people interviewed said Jones only contacted them from a blocked number before the trip.

When Jones reunited with the group, students said she informed them she had only three tickets to hand out and the rest of the group would have to stand in a nonticketed area.

“I would not have gone if I had known we wouldn’t have tickets,” Taylor said. “I was livid. I was really livid. Her whole thing talking to us about ‘sabotage’ turned out to be on us. She was going to get a school that was willing to do anything to make it look better. She used any school that was down to get us to go.”

Clemons, Taylor, Zakiyyah and Butler junior Kionne Francis said the group ended up watching the inauguration in the back section behind thousands of other people, and were so far back they could not see the jumbo screens or hear the audio.

Jones did not give an explanation for why she did not have tickets for the school or apologize for the change of plans, according to the group.

“We were the last people in the back,” Clemons said. “We couldn’t see anything. We couldn’t even see the screens. Kids spent $135 for nothing.”

According to Barrow spokesman Richard Carbo, Jones contacted the congressman’s office in December and requested about 20 tickets to the inauguration.

On Jan. 9, Carbo said his office informed Jones that because of immense demand, he could provide only two tickets. On Jan. 15, Carbo said Jones confirmed the two tickets with his office in an e-mail.

When two guests were unable to attend the inauguration and those tickets became available, Carbo said he contacted Jones on Jan. 19 and said he could give her two more tickets for a total of four.

“We weren’t aware of the extent of the promises she made, but unfortunately it wasn’t from our office,” Carbo said of what Jones told students.

When they boarded the bus later that evening to return to Augusta, Zakiyyah and Taylor said Jones told the students they did not meet the president or have tickets to the inauguration because they “had misbehaved” and were “disrespectful.”

On the ride home, Clemons said students called their parents and complained about the ordeal. Several students said they held a meeting with Thompson after the trip, but nothing has been resolved.

Students said they’d like to know how their money was spent and to get an explanation of why they were lied to. Many searched Google and Facebook to find information on Jones and her organization, but came up with nothing.

Taylor’s mother, Jennifer Roberts, who also went on the trip, said she was suspicious of Jones from the beginning but wanted her daughter to experience the inauguration.

Roberts said she saw Jones change from an encouraging chaperone on the ride to Washington to someone telling students they were not able to stand in the ticketed area because they had misbehaved.

“She flipped the script,” Roberts said. “She just became really mean to the kids.”

Roberts also fears each passenger’s $135 helped fund the second bus that traveled with the Legacy Foundation. She said Jones promised the $135 would also include snacks and drinks but those were never provided.

“The children were lied to,” Roberts said. “Not all of their money, but some of their money should be refunded. She shouldn’t have ever made promises to these children.”

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TK3
562
Points
TK3 02/16/13 - 04:11 pm
18
2
So much for trusting school leaders;

The school should be held partly responsible for this crime (fraud) against children.

TrulyWorried
13241
Points
TrulyWorried 02/16/13 - 04:20 pm
11
3
Students' trip

organized by a no good disgusting human being that took advantage of students that believed in what she told them - or should I say 'sold' them. I have high hopes that there are people in the community that can make arrangements to have this woman brought before a court and be made to pay back every cent - if not more to these young people. They should be paid for their misery and deep disappointment in the early part of their lives. How low can one go!!!

Just My Opinion
5454
Points
Just My Opinion 02/16/13 - 04:44 pm
13
2
Hate, hate, hate to say it,

Hate, hate, hate to say it, but a valuable lesson was learned here by these kids....if it's too good to be true, it probably isn't! And there's always someone out to take advantage of you and your situation. The thrill of attending the event clouded the judgement of the adults who were in charge and those who should've verified the plans. But then again, hindsight is 20/20! Sorry this happened to these kids. The lady deserves what's coming to her.

karradur
2848
Points
karradur 02/16/13 - 04:44 pm
24
2
I'm sorry, can we rewind this for a moment?

- The principal and school administration allowed a woman who clearly had no credentials or authenticity to not only walk around the school demanding money but to assemble the entire student body in the gymnasium and pretend to talk to the President like the parent of a toddler pretends to talk to Santa Claus when they're not behaving around Christmastime.

- The parents don't sound like they were required to sign any form of permission slips, and this doesn't sound like it was actually officially organized through the school in any meaningful way, just a loose association of students that were promised a "magical mystery Obama tour", but they let their kids go anyway with what sounds like minimal adult supervision.

- The administration, parents, AND students completely ignored the numerous and obvious signs that this was a classic confidence trick. Blocked phone numbers, false organizations, ridiculous promises of a lottery and framed photograph, and stories of the First Lady tearfully reading off a student's letter

Who is in charge here, exactly? How did this happen? Did everyone involved in this story seriously fall for one of the oldest tricks in the swindle book? Is this an actual story?

gargoyle
15937
Points
gargoyle 02/16/13 - 05:43 pm
18
1
135.00$ not bad for that life

135.00$ not bad for that life lesson.Now for the administration at Butler ,Heads should roll for letting a non vetted person access to students and campus privledges .Thats why they get paid big bucks ,making sure things like that not happen on their watch

Darby
25010
Points
Darby 02/16/13 - 06:08 pm
16
5
I must have missed the part where they were all...

to share in a multi-million dollar windfall from a dethroned Nigerian prince in exchange for their $135. That must have been in there somewhere.

That's the way these things usually play out, don't they?

allhans
23523
Points
allhans 02/16/13 - 07:23 pm
7
1
I am waiting to hear how

I am waiting to hear how much Jones took them for.

Lee Benedict
1560
Points
Lee Benedict 02/16/13 - 07:28 pm
15
7
Just like Obama...will they blame Bush, too?

“We wanted to believe it was all true”...just like the masses wanted to believe that Obama would give everyone everything, and, that yahoo who said that if Obama were to become POTUS she would no longer have to worry about her mortgage of putting gas in the car. Remember her?

This whole organized trip thing seems like a crock from the very beginning.

crackertroy
540
Points
crackertroy 02/16/13 - 07:29 pm
2
0
karradur
Unpublished

I couldn't have said it better myself. I used to work at Butler and other Richmond County schools. This surprises me none. Unfortunately this is a real story and unfortunately Richmond County is a real school system and this little episode is merely a reflection of the incompetence of the entire school system.

The least can be asked for is that the Principal pay back ALL the money the students spent on this trip. The Principal is ultimately responsible for allowing this utterly ridiculous, unbelievable sham to go through. I think this is VERY reasonable. If it we're any other school system, the Principal would immediately be fired for such incompetence.

BUT, once again this is Richmond County we're talking about here, and once again the students will get the short end of the stick.

Thank you Tracy McManus for reporting this. I can't imagine the shams that go on that go un-reported by the local media.

Pops
7709
Points
Pops 02/16/13 - 07:37 pm
9
5
Prediction

John Barrow's office will contact the White House about this. The Obamas, seeing an opportunity to appear really concerned, will plan a trip to Butler either both of them or at the very least just the first lady.

Lee Benedict
1560
Points
Lee Benedict 02/16/13 - 07:38 pm
1
1
I thought the same thing

"The principal and school administration allowed a woman who clearly had no credentials or authenticity to not only walk around the school demanding money but to assemble the entire student body in the gymnasium and pretend to talk to the President like the parent of a toddler pretends to talk to Santa Claus when they're not behaving around Christmastime."

How was this clown allowed to address a gathering of students during what appears should have been instructional time? The more I think about it, the more I think that this is not a true story. I say this because there is no way a principal would permit an uncredentialed unvetted person from an undocumented agency to address the student body and then claim that she had Obama on the line and blah blah blah. If the students did render payment for the trip through the bookkeeper, then one would think that it was a school function. If it were a school function, permission slips would have been required. However, as with many of The Augusta Chronicle's online stories, the first reporting of details are garbled and sketchy. I really hope that THIS STORY IS NOT TRUE.

burninater
9396
Points
burninater 02/16/13 - 07:58 pm
7
11
Just lie Obama -- Will they

Just lie Obama -- Will they blame Bush too?
------
Well Lee, unlike economic policy and the economic collapse of 2007, Bush hadn't been administering the Butler inauguration trip scam policy for the prior 7 years.

See the difference there? I'm positive you can.

triscuit
2991
Points
triscuit 02/16/13 - 08:03 pm
22
2
Are parents and students that

Are parents and students that stupid? Is the Administration at Butler that dumb? The principal should be grilled by the BOE to find out how this woman got in to the school and held an assembly for a non-sanctioned BOE event. I guess I might can understand teenagers being fooled. But seriously...adults actually thought the president would talk to someone like this? And say on hold? Blind allegiance.

Willow Bailey
20580
Points
Willow Bailey 02/17/13 - 10:05 am
15
1
Wow, just wow. I understand

Wow, just wow. I understand the students getting hoodwinked, but the administration? And why didn't language arts teacher, Carla Clemens speak up?

CobaltGeorge
154962
Points
CobaltGeorge 02/16/13 - 09:04 pm
13
3
The Level

to which our education has falling too. This is the intelligence that now control our school system.

younameit
188
Points
younameit 02/16/13 - 09:11 pm
0
0
Maybe this would apply

Originally created 12/11/99

Teacher gets 30-year sentence

By Staff Writer

All of Vanessa Velez-Cruz' good work in school, church and community could not counter the harm she caused in cheating so many parents and students, a judge said Friday in sentencing her to 30 years in prison.
In Richmond County Superior Court, those parents and Aquinas High School students who trusted Ms. Velez-Cruz with thousands of dollars to arrange overseas trips listened as the 48-year-old former school teacher asked for forgiveness.

"Today I ask for forgiveness," Ms. Velez-Cruz said. "One more time I ask my students to forgive me."

Ms. Velez-Cruz, a popular Spanish teacher at the private Catholic high school since 1992, fell from grace in June when 28 Aquinas High students were stranded in Europe. Their accommodations were canceled after Ms. Velez-Cruz's checks to a travel agent bounced.

That was just the tip of the iceberg uncovered by Richmond County Sheriff Investigators Jimmy Vowell and Anita Hopson, District Attorney Danny Craig told the judge Friday.

The investigators found that Ms. Velez-Cruz had systematically stole $227,774 from students and their parents, friends, businesses and charitable organizations from 1993 through 1999, Mr. Craig said.

Ms. Velez-Cruz defrauded the students and parents by creating the false impression that she was depositing monthly installment payments for overseas trips into two business accounts. Actually, Mr. Craig said, she was putting the checks into her own bank account and draining it dry.

On Friday, Ms. Velez-Cruz pleaded guilty to 44 counts of felony theft by conversion; three counts misdemeanor theft by conversion, two counts felony theft by deception; five counts deposit account fraud; one count second-degree forgery, two counts first-degree forgery; one count state income tax evasion; and one count of violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act.

As part of the plea agreement, Ms. Velez-Cruz gave up her teaching certificate.

The plea negotiation included a recommendation of a 30-year prison sentence, but defense attorney Pete Theodocion asked Judge Brown to consider a lesser amount of time behind bars.

Ms. Velez-Cruz volunteered countless hours for after-school activities, church work and community involvement, Mr. Theodocion said as he read a long list of her contributions.

"I just don't want the court to lose track of the enormous good she has done," he said.

Mr. Theodocion asked the judge to consider other Richmond County Superior Court sentences given to people in Ms. Velez-Cruz' position -- a man who embezzled $180,000 from his employer received a 20-year probation sentence, and the two medical research doctors who defrauded the Medical College of Georgia of $10 million received five- and 15-year prison sentences.

Calling the case a very unfortunate situation, Judge Brown noted that Ms. Velez-Cruz had done a considerable amount of good, but said he could not ignore the large number of people hurt by her crimes.

"That harm cannot be ignored," Judge Brown said. He also ordered Ms. Velez-Cruz to make restitution to the victims.

Waymore
103
Points
Waymore 02/16/13 - 09:17 pm
10
4
Irony...

...the sweet, sweet irony.

Darby
25010
Points
Darby 02/16/13 - 10:17 pm
7
3
"The Obamas, seeing an opportunity to appear....

really concerned, will plan a trip to Butler either both of them or at the very least just the first lady."

Believe it or not, (Considering my contempt for Obama) I think that would be a good thing. I know the kids would appreciate it and so would their parents who in huge numbers voted for him anyway.

It would have to be more productive than any of his many vacations. I think he should go. Really! He could do something good for a change.

Personally, I wouldn't walk across a narrow street to see him, but that's just me.

allhans
23523
Points
allhans 02/16/13 - 10:45 pm
12
5
They were duped because they

They were duped because they wanted to believe.
The world is full of fakers (i.e.Obamas)..Believe them at your own peril.

soitgoes
786
Points
soitgoes 02/16/13 - 11:24 pm
8
1
Sad

To be taken like that, but at least you were in DC during the inauguration. What an event that must have been. Maybe next time you should (a) get it in writing and (b) read the fine print before paying your money.

gargoyle
15937
Points
gargoyle 02/17/13 - 12:24 am
9
1
If I were a enterprising

If I were a enterprising reporter in the Augusta news market I'd try to find out who was on the other bus and how the trip went for those folks.

Willow Bailey
20580
Points
Willow Bailey 02/17/13 - 12:56 am
7
1
I'd look no further than

I'd look no further than Glenn Hills.

Techfan
6461
Points
Techfan 02/17/13 - 04:38 am
2
10
Unregulated capitalism at

Unregulated capitalism at work. Those pesky and onerous government regulations will probably end up throwing this entrepreneurial job creator in jail.

rebellious
20626
Points
rebellious 02/17/13 - 07:00 am
17
5
OMG

Well, I finally stopped laughing, my ribs are hurting.

P.T. Barnum said it and this story proves it.

The twist here is:
1) These people are victims of Obamiopia. The inability to discern reality from fantasy due to the Svengali affect of the mere mention of Barack Hussein Obama's name
2) The racial factor. Dollars to Donuts and I don't know for sure, I bet this is a Black on Black crime. Perpetrated by a black person, on black people.
3) If the principal had tried to debunk, disprove or otherwise hamper this pilgrimage to Mecca to pay homage to the Prophet Obama, he would have been tarred, feathered and then run out of town on a rail.

And lesson's learned? I doubt it. A lesson taught is not necessarilly a lesson learned. That is why the anger will be turned towards the administration, organizer, etc... Not one person (OK victim) will say, much less think, "Boy were we stupid or what".

My Daddy used to say "If you're gonna be stupid, you better be tough"

seenitB4
85254
Points
seenitB4 02/17/13 - 08:47 am
4
2
That sums it up Reb :)

My Daddy used to say "If you're gonna be stupid, you better be tough"

palmetto1008
9782
Points
palmetto1008 02/17/13 - 09:17 am
8
0
Gargoyle said it best:
Unpublished

Gargoyle said it best: heads need to roll in the administration at Butler.

TrukinRanger
1748
Points
TrukinRanger 02/17/13 - 09:29 am
2
0
This was the second
Unpublished

This was the second inauguration of the 1st black president and they really believed they'd meet him? This would have been one of the largest events in the country. I find it hard to believe that anyone in Washington would have promised that many tickets to a run down school in Augusta, GA. The Principal and parents of these children should have investigated this lady more before having their little "darlings" take a trip to the nation's capital for one of the largest events that could possibly take place there. There were 30 something students and just a few adults to supervise them? With all that aside, these kids got a round trip bus fare and a good time with their friends along with a few peeks of our capital for a mere $135. I couldn't drive that myself for that price. Even though they didn't seem to get what they were promised, it was still a deal. Another lesson learned and I'm sure they still had a good time getting away from home.

chascushman
6653
Points
chascushman 02/17/13 - 09:31 am
10
4
What is the big deal Ms.
Unpublished

What is the big deal Ms. Jones seems like a typical Obama supporter? If he can stand up there and tell lie after lie why can’t she tell a few?

Brad Owens
4285
Points
Brad Owens 02/17/13 - 10:01 am
8
1
Only in Augusta...

I hope this doesn't make the national news, that's all we need.

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