Deputies: Polk County Travel Agent Swindled $1.6 Million From Employer, Customers

Feb 14, 2020

A Winter Haven woman used her position as an office manager and travel agent to steal or misappropriate approximately $1.6 million, according to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.

Jaleeann Johnston, 42, is now facing felony charges of grand theft, aggravated white collar crime, criminal use of personal ID of 30 or more persons and obtain property by fraud.

She was released on Thursday after posting a $60,000 bond, jail records show.

Deputies arrested Johnston, who worked for Cruise Link Travel, on Feb. 13 after an investigation that began in 2018 found she took advantage of 64 people and multiple financial institutions. A relative, who owned the business, suffered the bulk of the losses — approximately $1.3 million.

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“The biggest victim by far was Johnston's employer, who was also a close relative, her own flesh and blood,” Sheriff Grady Judd said in a statement. “She more or less destroyed the woman's business, and brought about substantial monetary losses and grief to her customers.”

The investigation began on Nov. 13, 2018, when a potential customer placed a $339 deposit on a cruise, but never got a cruise or refund. Another person who was registered to go on the cruise with that customer then received a credit card charge of around $13,000.

Investigators reviewed accounts associated with Cruise Link Travel, Florida Best Peaches — which was also owned by the relative — and the relative themselves.

They found Johnston used Cruise Link Travel’s operational account for day-to-day business and personal expenses — such as shopping, dining, salons, bars, cash withdrawals and gas, according to the sheriff’s office.

In addition, she forged at least 66 checks and moved money between six financial institutions including Barclay Bank, Chase Card Services and IAA Credit Union. According to the sheriff’s office, all three lost money though it isn’t clear how much.

The other three companies were able to incur minimal or no financial loss by doing charge backs. The sheriff’s office wasn’t able to say the same for the 64 victims.

Johnston shifted blame between other businesses involved in the transactions to cover her tracks, the sheriff’s office said. She’s the subject of similar ongoing investigations being conducted by Lakeland and Bartow police.

“Johnston's scheme was unsustainable, and her greed just kept burying her deeper,” Judd said.