|By Brooke Edwards, Daily Press,
Victorville, Calif.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News <>February 5, 2010
Grand theft and fraud are among the 10 charges that could put a local hotel owner in prison for up to 18 years, with details emerging as to how 26-yearold Ashka Patel allegedly defrauded Orbitz.com of nearly $850,000. >
Patel, an Apple Valley resident, turned herself into authorities Tuesday afternoon after a monthslong investigation led to a warrant for her arrest.
"What we're alleging," Deputy District Attorney Jason Wilkinson said Thursday, "is that Ms. Patel used three credit cards that she owned or that were assigned to her and an additional three credit cards that belonged to three other people."
Using one of the cards, Wilkinson said, Patel would allegedly go to Orbitz.com and book a room for several nights. After Orbitz charged the credit card and relayed the funds to one of two local hotels Patel is involved with, she would, acting as the customer, apparently cancel the transaction. Orbitz would then reimburse her credit card, with the expectation that the hotel would pay the money back to the company.
Instead, Wilkinson said, it appears Patel withheld $848,000 from Chicago-based Orbitz.com from December 2008 until November 2009, when Orbitz officials reported the suspected fraud to local authorities.
The majority of the fraud was committed through the Travel Inn Motel on Seventh Street, but Wilkinson said a small amount was processed through the Days Inn on Park Avenue.
Patel has repeatedly identified herself to the Daily Press as the owner of both of these hotels. But after a story on her arrest appeared in Wednesday's paper calling Patel the owner, she denied this was true and declined to comment further.
Records show that Mo h m e d " Kev i n" Chauhan holds the business license for the Travel Inn. However, Patel is listed with the California Secretary of State as the agent for the hotel.
Chauhan and Patel have worked together on several projects, according to records, including developing a promised La Quinta Inn & Suites in Barstow and a Cambria Suites on Mariposa Road. Neither of those projects has yet materialized.
His brother, Khushroo "Chris" Chauhan, holds the business license for the Days Inn, according to city of Victorville records. Chris Chauhan also called the Daily Press denying that Patel is involved with his site, saying he hasn't talked to his brother's side of the family for years.
Though they are just beginning to unravel these ownership issues, Wilkinson said he is "inclined to believe" that Patel owns at least a partial share of those hotels.
When asked whether it appeared any of Patel's family members, who own a number of other hotels, or members of the Chauhan family knew about the fraud, Wilkinson said he couldn't discuss details of the ongoing investigation.
Patel pleaded not guilty Tuesday to all 10 felony counts she's facing, including three counts of grand theft, three counts of fraudulent theft and four counts related to false impersonation and using false identification.
T h o u gh Wi l k i n s o n originally called for $850,000 bail to cover the fraud, Judge Bridgid McCann reduced the fee to $300,000. Following her Tuesday night bailout, Patel is forbidden from leaving the state until her preliminary hearing in Victorville court March 15.
"To my knowledge this is the first time we've had a case of this type with this type of fraud in the High Desert," Wilkinson said.
While the charges call for a maximum sentence of 16 to 18 years, Wilkinson said that since they were able to locate and freeze some $700,000 in embezzled funds that could potentially go back to Orbitz, Patel is probably facing a year or less in jail.
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