The stolen snowboard: Mother is told to pay $500 cash or daughter will be left in Canada

The stolen snowboard: Mother is told to pay $500 cash or daughter will be left in Canada (File Image)

For thousands of high school students in our area, an overnight ski trip to Canada is a mid-winter dream come true.

But for one Northern Virginia family, the end of one of those trips was a nightmare, when the director of the trip, Dan Callahan, told the mother of a 16-year-old girl, if she didn’t bring $550 dollars cash to his Fairfax Surf Shop within 15 minutes, the bus would be leaving Canada without her daughter.

The issue? A stolen snowboard.

Seven On Your Side wanted to know, can you legally do that?

At the 11th hour, as the bus was about to leave Mt. Tremblant to return to Virginia, and payment for the board was still in dispute, a recording of one of the phone conversations between the panicked mother and frustrated ski trip director went like this:

  • Mother: Sir I never told you I wasn’t paying for it
  • Callahan: Yes you did.
  • Mother: No, I told you
  • Callahan: You’re lying right now.
  • Mother: Sir
  • Callahan: You’re lying right now.
  • Mother: Sir, can you
  • Callahan: You said you would not authorize the charge, that’s what you said.
  • Mother: Sir, can you please let me speak.
  • Callahan: You would not authorize the charge, that’s what you said.
  • Mother: Sir, I told you I
  • Callahan: Did you say that or not?
  • Mother: I s.
  • Callahan: Did you say you would not authorize the charge?
  • Mother: No, I did not.
  • Callahan: Yes, you did. You are a liar, that’s what you are.
  • Mother: No.
  • Callahan: You have 15 minutes or the bus is leaving.
  • Mother: Sir, you are holding my daughter hostage

Callahan hangs up.

“It escalated so quickly - it was shocking,” said the mother. “I couldn’t believe someone would make such a crazy demand for cash to send my daughter back from a ski trip.”

“I think both parties were at fault here,” Callahan told 7 On Your Side. “I certainly did lose my temper for a minute after she said she wouldn’t authorize the charge all day long.”

The problems started when the girl’s rented snowboard was stolen. She admits, she made a mistake. In the Disney-like village of Mt. Tremblant, she left her board outside the Starbucks for a few minutes. When she returned, it was gone. The resort valued the used board at $728 Canadian dollars, about $577 U.S. dollars. The director of the trip says locks and lockers are made available to kids, and they are encouraged to use them.

The mother told 7 On Your Side, she asked the resort for the rental contract her daughter had signed, a copy of the receipt, and time for the board to be turned in, which often happens by day’s end, before anyone charged her credit card.

“I told them to put my credit card number on hold if it made them feel better, but I didn’t authorize it until the end of business when I could see the contract, the receipt, and to see if it wasn’t turned in,” the mother told 7 On Your Side.

Families pay $650 dollars for the trip, the equipment, a locker and lock, organized by Ski Travel, located above the Fairfax Surf Shop, both owned by Callahan.

Callahan claims to have shuttled more than 100,000 kids to Canada for decades. He, himself, is the father of 14 children, and friends say he has great patience.

Parents who send their children on the trip do sign an agreement that acknowledges Ski Travel is not liable for stolen items, and kids can be expelled at any time at the parent’s expense.

Callahan told 7 On Your Side, in a typical year one to two teenagers will be expelled from the trip for various violations. They tend to be 18-year-olds, so parents don’t have to retrieve their kids; they pay for the one way flight home from Canada.

This past season, no child had to be expelled.

The Virginia family asked for their identity to be hidden, having been through a harrowing experience.

Their 16-year old daughter was humiliated when she and her luggage were taken off the bus home from Canada and told to wait outside in the cold until her mother paid up.

She had called her mother in tears, saying she was embarrassed, cold and scared, and begged her to “pay the man so he would let her go.” (The daughter confirmed that the Ski Travel staff chaperoning the trip in Canada were kind and reassuring to her throughout the ordeal, and eventually let her wait inside a lodge).

Back home, the family said they were traumatized by Callahan’s insistence that she deliver $550 cash, and only cash would do, to his ski shop within 15 minutes or he would leave the girl behind.

“I was sobbing,” the mother told 7 On Your Side. “I had my other kids in the car. I told him to take my credit card. Just please put her on that bus home. At that point, I would’ve paid anything to have him not leave her there.”

Within the hour, the mother said she drove to the shop, asked a Fairfax police officer to accompany her, and paid Callahan for the stolen board. The resort had tacked on the charge to his final bill, which is why he wanted reimbursement right away.

It was a very long night, she said, as she lay sleepless counting the hours until the bus brought her daughter home, which it did.

“I think parents need to know you are helpless when your child is in another country,” she said.

Callahan admitted to 7 On Your Side, he snapped.

“It was not my finest hour. I grew very impatient and I lost my temper,” said Callahan.

Callahan said that the mother knew for hours that the bill was due, and it could’ve been resolved quickly in the morning, but that she refused to pay over the phone. At departure time in the evening, 111 kids were waiting on the bus to leave Canada, and he said he had his son, a chaperone on the trip, hold the bus for two hours to give the mother time to authorize a credit card charge.

“Forty years of business, 130,000 students, and I’ve never had a parent quite like this one,” said Callahan. “I’ve never had someone play games for seven hours, saying she wouldn’t pay.”

“Why not collect the money when they got back?” 7 On Your Side asked Callahan.

“That’s not the typical policy,” he said. “And I had no reason to believe she would pay it. And I would never leave her daughter in Canada.”

But the threat worked. The mother paid up, and the daughter came home. Later, the mom did try to have the charge reversed because she felt she was coerced into payment without having all the facts, but Paypal denied her claim.

Seven On Your Side wanted to know, was Callahan within his legal rights to remove the teen from the bus, and threaten to leave her behind, unless her mother paid for the stolen snowboard?

We asked Erik Jurgensen, a criminal prosecutor in Virginia, to review the case.

“The threat of leaving her behind is not a good business tool other than to make sure you get money right away. I mean you have someone over a barrel,” said Jurgensen. “I think the better practice would be to collect the debt back in Virginia. What leaves a bad taste in the mouth is the way they tried to extract the money when the consumer was in a vulnerable position.”

The mother thought what happened had to be some kind of criminal action - a form of kidnapping, extortion, or blackmail. But each of those claims has a legal test that doesn’t appear to have been met, according to Jurgensen. Extortion, for example, usually means the wrongdoer threatened real physical harm. And even though a threat was made, it was not carried out.

By Jurgensen’s assessment, the family might have a civil claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. By Virginia code, the wrongdoer’s conduct has to be intentional, outrageous, have a causal connection, and the emotional distressed caused must be severe. But without obvious injury, that last element can be very difficult to prove.

“And that’s where [7 On Your Side] comes in,” said Jurgensen. “In some ways, that might be the tonic for this - to shed light on this and make consumers aware of that so they can make more informed decisions.”

Because of the disagreement, Callahan said he will make a change going forward. Students will be required to give the resort in Canada a credit card number, just in case equipment is stolen or condos are damaged and there is a dispute. That way, Callahan won’t be on the hook for the bill, which can amount to thousands of dollars for one teenager’s mishap.

One month after the Virginia trip, students in Montgomery County were loading up for another Ski Travel trip. Very few of the students brought their skis and snowboards, saying it’s less of a hassle to pay one price to Ski Travel for everything and pick up the gear in Canada. Many of the kids said they had been on the trip before and looked forward to the getaway every year.

One parent admitted to 7 On Your Side, she had not thought through what would happen if her child were expelled from the trip, which, by contract, Ski Travel reserves the right to do.

“If I had to go get my child, my passport is expired,” said Medy Keefe. “I would be terrified. It’s not right. It’s not fair.”

But it’s not criminal. And it’s something you should know before you send your child on her next trip abroad.

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