Gospel concert promoter ran scams, authorities say

Al Hernandez is an evangelical Christian. His family members are huge fans of contemporary gospel.

A couple weeks ago, Hernandez’s 34-year-old son heard about the perfect gospel concert at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo. The musical genre’s biggest stars – Fred Hammond, Kirk Franklin, Kelly Price – were to perform at Gospel Fest 2007.

Eagerly, Hernandez’s wife and son began searching for tickets, although oddly the purported sales outlets always fell through. Eventually, the family bought eight $40 tickets over the phone, using an American Express card and debit card.

Little did they know, that move would soon test their faith and their credit rating.

On Aug. 25, the family drove from Pacifica to Vallejo for the concert. Upon their arrival, they saw Six Flag’s signs announcing that not a single headlining act would perform. Despite a smaller line-up of local church choirs, the family, along with other concertgoers, was furious.

“It’s an abomination. They ripped people off,” Hernandez said. “You can go to church for free and see local acts.”

The promoter passed out forms for refunds. Six Flags offered parking refunds.

Then on Friday, things got worse.

Hernandez’s wife and son learned from their banks they were charged $2,000 and $1,000, respectively, for the tickets. They have different last names too, Hernandez said, so he believes other concertgoers may have been victimized.

“They think we’re Christians and we’re going to forgive,” Hernandez said. “No, we’re not. I don’t know what the problem is, but I want our money back.”

The family’s accounts were charged to Celebrity Events International, an Oakland company run by Kristin Martin.

* * * *

Martin is a 32-year-old single mother with Alameda and Oakland residences. Authorities and alleged victims say she has spun a web of deceit using God and the Internet to leave countless victims wondering where their money went.

She’s sold gospel concerts with Grammy-winning artists and industry expos promoting guest speakers such as Donald Trump, Raven Symone and the U.S. secretary of education. The common thread – they almost always fall through.

Martin, who is out on bail for two counts of identity theft in Alameda, worked her latest alleged scam at the Discovery Kingdom gospel concert last weekend.

After Martin’s company had been hyping the big-name acts for weeks, gospel star Kelly Price got wind of the concert from a fan on her MySpace page.

In a phone interview from her Texas home, Price said she was never booked for the show. Neither were any of the other headlining artists. Despite a last-minute effort by Six Flags to woo gospel performer J. Moss, he too bailed, officials said.

“It went surprisingly well considering none of the headliners showed up,” said Nancy Chan, park spokeswoman.

“We received some complaints, but steered those to the promoter,” Chan said.

In addition, the park fronted Martin “quite a bit” of money to cover staging, lighting and other concert costs, Chan said.

“We gave her a time-frame to pay that back,” Chan said.

Martin did not respond to numerous phone and e-mail messages left by the Times-Herald.

On the Gospel Fest Web site at www.gospel-fest07.com, Martin left a message apologizing for the bungled show. “As the Senior Executive of Celebrity Events International, I humbly apologize for our part in the postponement of the Main Concert at California Gospel Fest on Saturday, August 25, 2007. There was no ill intentions on our part to offend any artist or their management,” she wrote.

Andy Santamaria, general manager of The Light 1190 AM, an East Bay gospel radio station, said Martin ran an initial set of radio spots promoting the Vallejo gospel show and hyping the big-name acts.

“We weren’t able to get hold of her to verify some things, and the second set never ran,” he said.

Martin also ran radio spots with KMEL and KBLX, Santamaria said.

“That’s a shame,” the station manager said after hearing the headlining acts were never actually booked. “These shows are more than just a concert. It’s more about a lifestyle, and things like this shouldn’t happen .”

* * * *

The Vallejo event wasn’t Martin’s first controversial gospel show.

Martin previously peddled the Gospel Music Works show May 26 at the Great America theme park in Santa Clara. She claimed gospel group Tye Tribbett and G.A. would headline the show.

The law would finally catch up to her.

In the month leading up to the concert, Martin’s landlady began to get suspicious, said Alameda Detective Greg Ella.

The landlady began noticing mysterious online purchases on her credit card, including $385 in women’s dresses for someone twice her size. The petite woman realized her 5-foot-9, 200-pound tenant, who had bounced numerous $3,000 rent checks, fit those larger dress sizes, Ella said.

The landlady’s suspicions grew when she arrived at Martin’s rented condo with Alameda County sheriff’s deputies April 4 to begin eviction proceedings. As the eviction took place, Martin pulled up in a taxi, but she fled when she noticed the officers, Ella said.

Sitting on the front porch was an unopened Fed Ex box addressed to the landlady’s husband. Inside were 1,000 tickets for the Great America gospel show, paid for in the landlady’s husband’s name, Ella said.

Martin had ordered the tickets, with the victim’s name forged on an invoice sent to Great America, at a retail cost of $24 each, Ella said. The victim told authorities he knew nothing of the $24,000 purchase, Ella said.

Martin intended to sell those tickets for $47,000, Ella said.

“She had an excuse for everything,” the detective said of his interview with Martin.

Martin was arrested in late April and has pleaded not guilty to two counts of identity theft. She has been out on bail, pending a Sept. 11 court appearance, Ella said.

As the show neared, concerned Great America officials began sending letters to Martin, Ella said. Martin wrote back with excuses, saying the delays were caused by an employee – her 5-year-old daughter, Ella said.

The Great America show never happened.

In Martin’s paperwork, recovered after her eviction, Ella said there were fliers for future gospel shows at Knott’s Berry Farm and Disneyland.

* * * *

Irate former employees claim the promoter owes them money.

Before Martin stepped into the gospel concert business, she ran National Expo Group, a company claiming to be “a leader in the trade show service industry.”

Her former Web sites, which have since been taken down, boasted the company was “named the 32nd fastest growing privately held company in the Inc. 500.” She listed as clients a who’s-who list of corporations, from Nike to Disney to Coke. The company’s 2005 sales average reached $8 million, the site reported.

Meanwhile, her employees say they never saw a single trade expo pan out, nor a single paycheck.

Former regional sales manager Cosette Jurkovic came across Martin in a Monster.com job ad in October. She jumped at the $75,000 annual salary, since she could work from her Pennsylvania home.

Jurkovic claimed in a phone interview that Martin owes her more than $11,000 in back pay.

Evangeline Allen, who worked as a sales associate with Jurkovic, said Martin owes her $6,000.

“I’m just wondering when this woman will be going to prison,” Allen said from her Kentucky home. “I’m trying to keep her from doing this to other people. A lot of people are suffering from what she did to us.”

Allen, a single parent of a daughter, expected her first paycheck on Thanksgiving. It never came, and she had to do without holiday shopping for her family, she said.

Most of the employees worked across the country from their home computers, employees said. Most never met Martin, only dealing with her over the phone or by e-mail.

“At times she came across as legitimate and at times there were too many excuses,” Jurkovic said.

In early December, the company began crumbling. Jurkovic said Martin began telling the two dozen or so employees that she couldn’t pay them because she was filing for bankruptcy.

There are no bankruptcy records for National Expo Group.

Fed up, Jurkovic forwarded her evidence, including a signed contract, to U.S. Postal Service inspectors in March. Employees say federal officials have begun a mail fraud investigation.

“We can’t make any comment at this time,” said Jeff Fitch, a U.S. Postal Service inspector.

* * * *

Not only were her employees not paid, Martin’s expos never happened, sources said.

Jurkovic was charged with getting her sales team to sell National Real Estate Expo 2007. The employees would call real estate companies pitching booths, ranging in price from $1,000 to $6,000. The glossy fliers, along with a corresponding Web site, detailed the events, touring from Las Vegas to San Francisco to Atlanta and other major cities. The featured celebrity speaker was to be Donald Trump.

“None of my team sold anything, thank God,” Jurkovic said. She said all the companies would call the various venues and find out the event wasn’t happening.

The Times-Herald contacted two venues highlighted as hosting some of Martin’s expos.

Michael Colter, facility manager of San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, recalled dealing with Martin. The event center was listed on numerous expo sheets, including the National Real Estate Expo and National Home Expo.

“She contacted us and talked to us,” Colter said.

The next thing he knew, several builders called to question the event’s authenticity.

Martin had sent in an application and on the surface it checked out, Colter said. However, the auditorium manager said he kept getting the run-around when trying to finalize details.

Meanwhile, Colter checked out her online Web sites. “They put money in those things. They have great Web sites,” Colter said. “But it was just a sham.”

National Expo Group also advertised Black College Fair 2007 for the San Francisco venue. Colter said his staff was later interviewed by U.S. Coast Guard officials, who said they bought a booth for the fair only to have it never happen. A U.S. Coast Guard official said he would look into a possible investigation, but did not return a call.

Colter said postal inspectors interviewed auditorium officials.

Martin has been blacklisted from the Bill Graham facilities, the facility manager said.

Her company also advertised World Black Expo for the Mandalay Bay’s convention center in Las Vegas earlier this year. A Mandalay Bay representative said no such event ever occurred.

“The event was canceled at the Mandalay Bay due to the sponsor failing to perform in accordance with the contractual agreement we had with them,” a spokeswoman said.

At the time, Martin used one of her other company names, Sister Diversity Productions, the official said.

National College Day was scheduled to run at the Sands Expo Center in Las Vegas, featuring pop sensation Raven Symone, the Cheetah Girls, and a keynote address by U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, according to company mailers. According to a trade magazine report, college recruiting representatives who paid for booths appeared at the Las Vegas convention center only to find an empty space.

* * * *

Ella, the Alameda detective, thought he’d heard the last of Martin after her gospel identity theft arrest.

However, he said, he’s lately been getting calls from distressed customers of Martin. Though she apparently has no accounting license or certification, Ella said, Martin may have filed people’s income taxes out of the Alameda condo.

“We’re getting calls that (the returns) were never turned in, or done wrong,” he sighed.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday September 4, 2007.
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