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Yvonne Abraham

Event planner vanishes with girls’ dreams

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / July 4, 2010

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REVERE — Where are you, Donna Garcia?

A lot of very angry people would like a word.

Until recently, the party planner was very popular in Hispanic communities from Boston to Revere. She specialized in the Quinceañera, the 15th birthday party that marks a girl’s transition to womanhood.

Quinceañeras are a very big deal. The birthday girl dresses up in a huge, frothy gown and tiara. Girls and boys in matching dresses and tuxedos attend her. There is a church ceremony, limousines, choreographed dances, a banquet, a tiered cake, and a bill that is often over 10 grand.

A good Quinceañera can make a girl’s year. A bad one — well, it would be hard for the typical 15-year-old to recover.

But Garcia always did a spectacular job. Friends and relatives recommended her to each other, sending her steady, lucrative work.

“The day she came to my house, she made it sound like a fairy tale,’’ said Vanesa Acosta. “My party was going to be a tropical theme, pink and orange. She was going to bring in butterflies from New York.’’

Garcia would provide everything — an Airport Hilton ballroom, decorations, food, dresses, music and choreography — for just $9,000. Vanesa’s mother, Olga Arboleda, signed a contract and gave Garcia $5,380 as a down payment for the party, set for Aug. 21.

But last weekend, Vanesa’s phone began ringing. Her friend had had Garcia plan her party, but when she showed up at the Chelsea club where her Quinceañera was supposed to be, they had no booking. The girl had to cancel her party. Now she won’t leave the house.

Word flew through the community as Garcia’s clients called around, panicked.

Olga checked with the Hilton. They had no booking for Vanesa. In East Boston, Chelsea, Lynn, Revere, and Everett, other families made similar discoveries.

On Thursday morning, Vanesa, Olga, and 20 other parents and daughters gathered in the Revere beauty salon where Garcia used to work. They passed around pictures of Donna Garcia, born Jose Donaldo Garcia, comparing notes.

The planner with the stellar reputation began acting oddly about a month ago, they said, bouncing checks, leaving important things undone, showing up late or not at all.

“If only I could have her right in front of me,’’ said Johanna Ochoa, shaking Garcia’s picture.

She gave Garcia $9,000 last year. As her daughter’s July 24 party date approached, she bugged the planner repeatedly for dresses, decorations, choreography. Garcia always put her off. “You’re making me nervous!’’ she said. Nothing materialized. Garcia had never booked the ballroom Ochoa requested.

Garcia stopped answering her phone altogether, leaving Ochoa scrambling to organize her daughter’s party from scratch and to pay for it twice. Ochoa had also recommended Garcia to two of her friends, who lost $4,500.

Jennifer Lainez stood in a corner of the pink-walled salon, in tears. Garcia gave her a Quinceañera a few weeks ago, but “everything was messed up,’’ Lainez said. “We got there and nothing was ready. We had to wait two hours. The waiters didn’t show up. We have no photos or videos. She was supposed to take care of us, but she never answered the phone.’’

None of the people commiserating in the salon have heard from the party planner for days. Nor have the photographers to whom she owes thousands. Ditto the tux and limo company that is down $2,000 since Garcia stopped paying a month ago.

Alan Valoy, who lived next door to Garcia in a Lynn apartment complex, hasn’t been able to reach her either. After Garcia organized a “phenomenal’’ May surprise birthday party for Valoy, complete with an ice sculpture of a Moët bottle, Garcia asked him to invest $1,500 in a party she was planning, promising him a $4,500 profit.

His first return was due last Sunday. He called Garcia, and she told him she’d be there with his check in 15 minutes. Then she told him she was in Connecticut. She was always at Foxwoods, Valoy said.

“I’m afraid I’m going to snap when I see her,’’ said the sales consultant.

He has plenty of company.

Garcia doesn’t answer her cellphone, and her voicemail isn’t working. Her boyfriend didn’t return messages.

An elderly woman living in Garcia’s apartment — some people say she’s Garcia’s mother, others say she’s her aunt — said she thinks Garcia might be trying to get into Canada.

“She put me in trouble with the rent,’’ the woman said Thursday, sliding a finger across her throat. “She owes me money, too.’’

On Thursday, a group from the salon went down to a Chelsea courthouse to report Garcia. Now Chelsea police and the Suffolk district attorney are investigating.

It’s hard to say how much money is missing, but it’s at least $50,000. That’s a staggering sum for the people who wrote her checks. Most of them work in restaurants and day-care centers. They spent years scraping together money for their daughters’ special days. They were careful, relying on a planner their friends and relatives trusted.

Like all the others, Vanesa’s mother, Olga, is angry and overwhelmed. Between shifts busing tables at a Kenmore Square restaurant, she’s racing to pull together money and plans so her daughter won’t be disappointed.

“Do you know,’’ she said, “how many tables I have to clean to make $5,380?’’

Where are you, Donna Garcia?

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.

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