Officials at Southside High School in Fort Smith, Ark., have contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Justice after an Oahu travel agent told them via email he had lost $267,500 paid by the school for a summer trip to Waikiki.
"This is supposed to be the culmination of their year to go to Hawaii, and for many of them it's the culmination of their band career," Sean Carrier, the band's assistant director, told KITV4 by phone from Arkansas.
Band officials knew something was amiss when the owner of the tour company Performing Hawaii Tours, Ope Saaga, stopped returning phone calls.
"It just went unanswered," band director Steve Kesner, told 40/29 TV News in Fort Smith. "Phone calls, texts, emails, you name it. We were a little concerned, but as time went on, it became more and more evident that something wasn't right."
The band had planned to come to Waikiki to participate in the Pan-Pacific Festival in early June, culminating in a parade down Kalakaua Avenue on the evening of June 10.
The director of the festival, Eric Ishizuka, told KITV4 that Saaga never registered the Southside Band to take part in any Pan-Pacific events.
"He never contacted us," said Ishizuka. "We never recommend travel agents to groups who take part."
A search of online business records shows Performing Hawaii Tours "is not in good standing" in the state of Hawaii. KITV4 reached out to Saaga by phone and email, but received no response.
Carrier provided an email from Saaga that the tour operator apparently wrote on April 19. In the email, Saaga admitted he's now in Samoa and no longer has the band's money.
"I made some terrible decision (sic) with the money and am now in the midst of trying to sell every asset I have in Samoa to pay the group back," Saaga wrote. "It will be a slow process so I beg of your patience as my number one priority (is) to get every cent I owe to the group."
Some members of the Southside band worked for months to save enough money to get to Hawaii, which the band dubbed "The Trip of a Lifetime!!!" on its website.
"They sold ads in school programs. They sold CDs. They sold cheesecakes," said Carrier. "Many of them took up part-time jobs. Losing this has been very hard (and) very difficult."
"I was very excited," Southside sophomore Natasha Cordoba, told 40/29. "It kind of sucks we're not going."
Meanwhile, there are also reports that another high school band may have been victimized by Saaga after booking a trip with Performing Hawaii Tours.
According to OzarksFirst.com, the Willard High School Band from Willard, Mo., gave Saaga's company $360,000, also for a trip to Waikiki.
"I worked for two years and I was pretty devastated when I heard the news," student Elise Rodman, told the news website.
Honolulu FBI agent Tom Simon could not deny or confirm whether the agency had launched an investigation into Saaga's whereabouts. However, it's believed he's no longer in Hawaii.
"His wife sent me a message via Facebook and said that they were divorcing, and that he was going to Samoa," said Carrier.