Festival from hell for child dance group

PHANTOM DIGS: This is the house a scam artist said was available,  but it was already occupied by a family -
PHANTOM DIGS: This is the house a scam artist said was available, but it was already occupied by a family –

First kids are hit by accommodation scam – then robbers steal computer

A LARGE group of child performers experienced a festival from hell when they and their minders were duped out of almost R20 000 by a con artist who masqueraded as a Grahamstown accommodation agent during the National Arts Festival.

The shock was revealed when the Cape Town dance group of 22 children and three adults arrived at two addresses in the same street which they had been given after booking “luxury accommodation”.

But one turned out to be a vacant plot and the other a small, modest house occupied by a family who knew nothing about the festival deal.

To add to the group’s nightmare, personal items – including a laptop, cellphone and cash – were stolen while they were sleeping in makeshift accommodation that festival organisers arranged.

Grahamstown police and festival organisers have now warned festivalgoers always to look for accredited accommodation providers.

The group, Lavender Beamers, from Lavender Hill in Retreat – who performed at the Recreation Centre in Grahamstown the next day – had to sleep on the floor of the Settlers Monument the night they arrived.

After that, festival organisers arranged alternative accommodation.

The children range in age from seven to 15.

Manager Dane Willemse said liaising with a man by the name of Stan Dooling began in April. “He started sending us pictures of luxurious houses and we were immediately impressed.”

Group director Greg Philander said the festival organisers had sent them a list of accredited accommodation venues but the prices were too high.

“So we started posting on social network sites that we needed accommodation … and that’s how we got into contact with him [Dooling].”

The group deposited instalments totalling R19 000 via electronic fund transfers. The last payment of R3 000 was made on June 29.

Philander said that on the night of the group’s arrival, July 1, he tried to call Dooling but his phone was off.

He also tried sending him text messages but there was no reply.

The Herald also tried to call the number several times but it went to voicemail each time.

The R19 000 was for two houses and after the last instalment was paid, Dooley indicated via SMS that the group would be staying at No 3 and No 6 Albany Road.

“When we arrived, No 6 was a vacant plot and No 3 had a shack with a family who had no idea what we were talking about,” Willemse said. It was later established that there is no No 6 in the street and that the vacant plot falls within the boundary wall of No 5.

The group’s ordeal continued days later when thieves broke into their new lodgings and made off with a laptop, a cellphone and R650 cash belonging to teacher Liesle Hendericks.

Willemse said: “We will never come to this place again. Grahamstown hasn’t been nice to us at all.

“After our first performance, I tried asking Grahamstown locals to open their doors so I could just cook for the kids because we had brought our own supplies, but no one was willing to help. I was begging and crying.”

Cleo-Ann Peterson, 12, said: “The first night we slept on the floor. I was very cross because the floor was hard and very uncomfortable. It was cold as well.” Kacia-Lee October, 15, said she had not heard a thing during the new lodgings break-in.

“We feel very unsafe and violated. We don’t sleep normally at night.

“Three big boys from our club patrol the house at night – they do shifts with our teachers.”

Lucia Fini, 7, said: “I want to go home.”

The group had to cancel their last performance on Wednesday because much of what they were going to perform was in the stolen laptop.

Grahamstown police spokeswoman Milanda Coetzer said officers were investigating both the burglary and the accommodation scam.

She said police were aware of a man, who identified himself as a “Mr Evans”, offering festival accommodation in Grahamstown but then failing to show up after making arrangements to meet his guests.

“We would urge anyone in future wishing to rent accommodation during the festival to inquire or work in conjunction with Makana Tourism.”

The group has declined to lay a criminal complaint because they would have to travel to court in Grahamstown if a suspect is arrested, and they cannot afford this.

Coetzer confirmed that members of the group would have to travel back for the court case if a docket was opened and the suspect arrested.

“However, the Justice Department makes provision for this by providing the complainant with travelling funds,” she said

Festival chief executive Tony Lankester said: “We did assist the group and have arranged accommodation for them.

“We urge festival-goers to use reputable providers when booking their accommodation.”

Lankester said the Makana Tourism office could advise the public on accredited accommodation providers.

-Malibongwe Dayimani

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