Man sentenced who stole more than $272,000 from Southside Band

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 417 views 

The man who stole more than $272,000 from Southside High School band students and their parents and caused the cancellation of a 2012 band trip to Hawaii was sentenced Monday (March 30) to more than five years in prison and ordered to pay restitution.

Southside Band Director Sean Carrier said Monday’s sentencing by U.S. District Court Judge P.K. Holmes III “is at least the beginning of the end” of what he said is a “tragic” and “gut wrenching” episode for all involved.

Calliope “Ope” Rocky Saaga, 40, of Eagle Mountain, Utah, was sentenced to 63 months in prison and three years of supervised release on his conviction of wire fraud. The sentence will run concurrent with a sentence in the Western District Court of Missouri for a similar charge. Saaga was also ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $272,235.89.

In August 2011, Saaga contracted with the Southside High School Band in Fort Smith to provide travel arrangements for a 2012 trip to Hawaii. The Southside High School Band wired him three payments between September 2011 and February 2012. Instead of arranging the trip, Saaga converted the money for his personal use, and the band trip to Hawaii was canceled due to a lack of funds. The scheme resulted in defrauding the Fort Smith Southside Band, students, and parents of over $272,000.00. Saaga pleaded guilty to the wire fraud charge on Oct. 16, 2014, noted a statement from the office of Conner Eldridge, U.S. Prosecuting Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas.

In a separate case, Saaga was indicted on May 7, 2014 and charged with 12 counts of wire fraud and three counts of money laundering by a federal grand jury in Springfield, Missouri for stealing $360,000.00 from the Willard High School Band Boosters, which forced the cancellation of a trip to Hawaii for more than 300 students and chaperones.  Saaga was sentenced on March 12, 2015 to five years in federal prison and ordered to pay $780,000.00 in restitution in that case.

“Justice has now been served on behalf of the students, and our office remains committed to aggressively prosecuting this type of fraudulent activity in Fort Smith and throughout all of the Western District of Arkansas,” Eldridge noted in the statement.

“Saaga is a thief who stole from hardworking citizens and their children,” stated Special Agent in Charge David Resch with the Little Rock office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “The sentencing today serves as a reminder that our partners at the United States Attorney’s Office and the IRS will continue to work together to identify these predators and their victims.”

Carrier is not optimistic all the restitution money will be paid, and if it is, it could take years.

“Judge Holmes was skeptical that it will be fully repaid,” said Carrier, who spoke at Monday’s sentencing. “They will garnish his wages for the rest of his life, but that could be $100 a month.”

An $18,000 deposit sitting in escrow and held by Sheraton Hotels will be returned to be distributed equally among those who paid for the trip that never happened. It won’t be much, Carrier said, “but it’s a start.”

Eldridge told The City Wire that full restitution will be tough to achieve, but his office will pursue every penny.

“Our job is to continue to track this guy and look for any assets he has or may gain in the future,” Eldridge said.

And while the sentencing “does put some closure” on the saga, Carrier said the event is still sad for all sides. Carrier said he and the school worked with Saaga for several years prior to 2012.

“We were more than just business partners, we were friends. But because of a gambling habit,” Carrier said, leaving the sentence open. “I think about he and his family. I do feel for them, but at the same time you can’t look past what has been done. … You can’t repay the damage done and confidence lost and the agony that the families and their friends went through.”

Following is the statement Carrier prepared for his comments during Monday’s sentencing of Saaga.

Your Honor, I thank you and the court for your time today. In thinking about the events leading up today's sentencing, the one overriding thing that comes over and over to my mind is: I wish the events of 2012 had never happened. I wish that the trip the Southside band was supposed to take had gone as well as the ones we took in 2006 and 2009. I wish that a man I considered a friend was planning our trip for 2015. All of this, your Honor, should and could have happened if it were not for a criminal betrayal.

I first met Ope Saaga in 2005 when the Southside band was planning our first Hawaii trip in 2006. He was key in the logistics of the 2006 trip. He was "the man" in making the 2009 trip happen. In 2011 he purchased tickets for the band on a dinner/dance cruise in Chicago. In 2008 or 2010 (I can't remember) Ope visited Fort Smith for the Ark Bandmasters Convention. He ate with us in Steve Kesner's home. I knew him and I knew his family. I considered him a friend and recommended him to many other music educators who were looking for travel help. Many of our parents and students got to know him. Our school principal knew him. My wife knew him.

This all changed in April of 2012. My youngest daughter, Abby, was born on April 18. On the 19th, Ope sent an email admitting guilt. Personally, instead of rejoicing in the birth of my new daughter, I was talking to lawyers and reporters and school officials. For many others the betrayal was just as bad. Students and families had saved up for months and years for this amazing trip. They had worked hard and sacrificed. Like all of us – they believed. The sense of disappointment and anger was impossible to stop or heal. Our sense of trust and innocence was lost forever.

Your Honor, I appreciate the efforts of this court and its agents that have lead to today. I humbly ask you to think about what was suffered and lost to the students, families, directors, and indeed the whole community of Fort Smith. That which this man took away can never fully be restored. I feel for his family and my thoughts and prayers are with them. I personally have forgiven Mr. Saaga for his actions toward me. I do wish that the actions of Ope Saaga had not wounded our organization and community. More than 250 young people who participate in SHS Band, not just those who planned to take the trip, have learned a little about bitterness. It is hard to avoid, and only serves to feed the anger experienced in the U.S. today.

Your Honor, we ask for the strongest sentence within your power for Ope Saaga, not as a solution to this bitterness, but as a model for how one begins to make restitution, even when total restitution is seemingly impossible. Justice, in my humble opinion, requires not only the ceasing and desisting of injustice but also requires either punishment or reparation for injuries and damages inflicted for prior wrongdoing. The essence of justice is the redistribution of gains earned through the perpetration of injustice. If restitution is not made and reparations not instituted to compensate for prior injustices, those injustices are in effect rewarded.

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