Centralia tour operator files for bankruptcy, customers demand refunds

CENTRALIA, Wash. -- A Centralia tour operator is asking for customer support as it tries to regroup from financial problems. But customers we talked to say Discovery Tours has a lot of questions to answer, starting with "where's my money?"

Discovery Tours specializes in organizing day trips and vacation tours for people over 50. Owner and CEO Melody Miranda says the company has been in business for more than 15 years operating more than 1,200 departures annually for active seniors.

But according the Better Business Bureau, the complaints against the company started increasing back in late 2010. Customers claim their trips were canceled without notice and they had problems getting refunds. Since our first report about the complaints back in August, more unhappy customers have come forward.

"I never have thought this would have ever happened," said Lynda Ash of Tacoma.

Ash and two of her friends say they're out thousands.

"$5,288," said Ash's friend, Esther Cade.

A third friend, Idella Whitford-Stith, says she paid even more - $6,088 - because she booked a single, ocean-view cabin. The women say they paid Discovery Tours nearly two years ago for an 18-day cruise to the Holy Land. They say they were supposed to take off on March 6, 2011, but Discovery Tours canceled the trip twice.

Michelle Gellings and her husband paid more than $2,000 apiece for a cruise to Hawaii from Vancouver, B.C. Gelling says her elderly father paid the same amount.

"5 days before we were to leave for our trip, they called and said our trip has been canceled!" she said.

Complaints are accumulating both with the state Attorney General and Better Business Bureau.

""Now the company basically told us, 'Hey, you know what? We don't want any correspondence with you.' Since 2008 they said this," explained BBB Director of Public Relations David Quinlan.

At Discovery Tours' address in Centralia, we found no one on the premises. A sign on the door announced the business is temporarily closed until Jan. 7 due to staff reduction. Court records confirm Discovery Tours filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Nov. 27, claiming it owes creditors at least $1 million.

Michelle Gellings says she only got part of her money back. According to the bankruptcy filing, neither Gelling, her husband nor her father are included on the list of Discovery Tours' creditors.

"We're not made of money we had to save, my husband had to work overtime," she said.

Ash and her friends are not listed as creditors either.

When I talked to Miranda about the complaints in September, she told me the Holy Land trip was canceled because of civil unrest in Egypt and the tour was therefore non-refundable. Ash, Cade and Whitford-Stith have since filed complaints with the Attorney General's office. The Attorney General's office urges anyone who feel's they're due a refund from Discovery Tours to file a complaint with the Consumer Protection Division.

In a recent statement to the Attorney General's office in response to Ash's complaint, Discovery Tours raised the issue of possible embezzlement by an employee which resulted in the bankruptcy filing. Miranda indicated people owed money will be included in the reorganization plan.

According to an email Holiday Greeting sent to customers dated Nov. 30, Discovery Tours will continue to operate and is still taking reservations for future tours.