Travel agent scammed people trying to get to Mecca, gets 9 1/2 years

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Travel agent Rashid Minhas (left) was sentenced Thursday to 9 1/2 years in prison for fraud. | Video screen shot

They thought Rashid Minhas could help them make a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca.

But now, one of the travel agent’s former customers knows “a lot of people who would like to see him in a dark alley.”

That’s because Minhas turned out to be a brazen thief, lying to his customers and stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from people who saved their entire lives for the Hajj, an Islamic pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. The feds say Minhas spent stolen cash at Disney World and wrote a “reprehensible” email to victims, falsely claiming their visas had been denied.

“If Allah doesn’t want to invite you, than [sic] no one can take you to Mecca/Medina,” Minhas allegedly wrote in September 2014.

U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman called that email a despicably cruel “coup de grace” as he sentenced Minhas to 9 1/2 years in prison Thursday for a pair of frauds that cost victims more than $1.3 million.

“He blamed God,” Feinerman said.

Minhas sat quietly in orange jail scrubs throughout most of the daylong sentencing hearing. But when he finally had a chance to speak directly to the judge, he sobbed uncontrollably. He told the judge he “lost everything,” blowing his nose repeatedly as he piled tissue after tissue onto a courtroom podium.

“I made mistakes, your honor,” Minhas wailed. “I made mistakes. I apologize to the Pakistani community. I apologize to everyone.”

Victims of Minhas’ scams remained in the courtroom gallery throughout the lengthy sentencing hearing, interested to learn how the judge would punish the man they trusted with their life savings. They watched as Minhas groveled before the judge.

The feds had already indicted Minhas for one fraud when he began to scam people trying to make the Hajj, court records show. A grand jury accused him in November 2013 of selling below-market paper airline tickets for cash to customers of his company City Travel & Tours Inc., voiding the tickets as soon as they left and pocketing the cash.

Feinerman ultimately found Minhas guilty of seven fraud counts, but not before Minhas was caught scamming Muslim customers trying to fulfill their once-in-a-lifetime religious obligation. Minhas told customers his new company, Light Star Hajj, would help them obtain Hajj visas even though the company had no authority to do so.

Minhas pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud in that case in June.

“He did not rob rich people,” Riaz Uddin, one of Minhas’ victims, told the judge. “He took money from poor people, hard-working people like myself.”

Minhas’ defense attorney, Aaron Goldstein, told the judge Minhas would be more likely to pay back his victims if he received a sentence “as low as possible” so he could return to work. But Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Yeadon called Minhas a “menace to the public” who would never pay the restitution. He asked Feinerman to sentence Minhas to 10 years.

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