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I-Team Investigation: Running From Justice

By Charlotte Huffman

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- The I-Team is in pursuit of a man running from justice.

Ellis Hester, of Gibbstown has admitted to stealing tens of thousands of dollars from twenty people.

Hester avoided a three to five year prison sentence in 2011 when he promised the judge he'd pay his victims back.

Now - four years later, the victims say they have yet to get justice and turned to the CBS Philly I-Team for help.

"It was a once in a lifetime trip," said Rhonda Young.

But it was a trip that Young never took – despite the fact that she paid for it.

Young and 19 others were planning a Mediterranean cruise in 2011 to visit Italy, France and Spain.

The group hired then-travel agent Hester to book the trip. Hester owned the now-defunct Williamstown business, Deva Travel Agency.

Member of the group say they previously used Hester to book trips and considered him a legitimate travel agent.

But that all changed when the group discovered before leaving for the Mediterranean that their reservation with the cruise line had been cancelled months prior, despite having paid Hester the full $3,369 per person for the excursion.

"No trip existed. So this man took money from me knowing he'd cancelled all the trips and that we weren't getting on a cruise ship to sail the Mediterranean. How disappointed would you be?" said Young.

In 2011, Hester pled guilty to theft for stealing more than $67,000 from the group.

He was placed on probation and ordered to reimburse all of the victims - with monthly payments of $20 dollars per victim.

"So far I've received a total of $846 dollars and some change," said Denise Hall who is one of Hester's 20 victims.

She says a year ago those checks stopped coming altogether.

"The rule was; you pay the restitution or you do the time," said another victim, Jackie Myers.

During an ability-to-pay hearing in February, Hester told Superior Court Judge M. Christine Allen-Jackson the customers' money is "gone, spent with bills, running the business."

"I should have sent you to state prison," Judge Allen-Jackson said.

During the February hearing, Judge Allen-Jackson ordered Hester to sell his Mercedes Benz and his Gibbstown house, which Hester claims is worth $260,000 dollars.

She gave Hester 30 days to do it.

Nearly 60 days later, the CBS Philly I-Team found Hester's house is not listed online or with realtors.

There was no for sale sign out front and two people told the I-Team Hester had taken them in as renters.

As for that Mercedes?

It was parked right out front.

"That's crazy to me," Young said after learning what the I-Team discovered.

"I'm just dumbfounded. I think I'm actually more upset with the judge than with (Hester) at this point," said another victim, Beverly Dandridge.

The day Hester was due back in Judge Allen-Jackson's courtroom earlier this month to prove he'd upheld her orders and made a legitimate effort to sell his property and re-pay his victims, Hester did not show up.

He told the court he was in the hospital.

"This process is really sickening. We are going around and around in circles," said Hall as she left the courtroom.

Hall and the others say they are losing faith in the criminal justice system.

"Well, it works pretty well for the criminal. As far as the victim - you lose," said Dandridge.

Not only has Hester been running from justice – he's been running from the I-Team too.

For days he evaded CBS Philly's cameras and even began parking blocks away from his house.

That's where late one night he wasn't expecting to find the I-Team waiting for him.

Hester refused to answer the I-Team's questions.

Instead, he got into the Mercedes he should have sold and as the I-Team learned, should not even be driving.

According to DMV records, Hester's license has been suspended since April of 2014.

"(Hester) has not paid restitution, hasn't sold his house or Mercedes, and as we discovered he is driving on a suspended license so what are you going to do about it," Investigative Reporter Charlotte Huffman asked the county's assistant prosecutor?

"Now that the judge has given him that chance and it is evident that he is not going to show up for court or pay the victims back, his last stop is now the door of the jail. "So when he comes to court on May 1st our office will strongly advocate that he be sent to prison," said Resha Jeneby, Assistant Prosecutor for Gloucester County.

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