Full of hot air? Fraud, theft charges dog Atlanta Balloon Glow director

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Richard “Ricky” Garvie is the subject of social media complaints from ticket buyers at other events similar to Atlanta Balloon Glow.

A British man who has sold out tickets for hot air balloon rides in Piedmont Park tonight through Sunday is the subject of social media complaints from ticket buyers at other events and faces a felony theft charge for stealing a balloon in Indiana, according to records and interviews.

Richard "Ricky" Garvie, 35, canceled the Atlanta Balloon Glow over Valentine's Day in February because of high winds and rescheduled the four-day event for this weekend, offering thrill-seekers the chance to float up in a hot air balloon tethered to the ground for $30 to $50.

The weekend weather forecast showed a chance of storms every day through Sunday.

Garvie has staged at least 10 other ballooning events around the country in the past several years, some of which were also canceled or partially canceled due to weather. Reviews of those events, some of which were rescheduled, were mixed. Some attendees posted on social media they were happy with the experience and some complained about tickets that weren’t refunded, insufficient parking and crowds.

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Atlanta Balloon Glow event director Ricky Garvie at Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Thursday, August 1, 2019. Garvie has faced complaints from customers at other events after cancelling balloon rides. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Atlanta Balloon Glow event director Ricky Garvie at Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Thursday, August 1, 2019. Garvie has faced complaints from customers at other events after cancelling balloon rides. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

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Atlanta Balloon Glow event director Ricky Garvie at Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Thursday, August 1, 2019. Garvie has faced complaints from customers at other events after cancelling balloon rides. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

"He runs (the events) more of, 'How much money can I get these people to give me in advance and how little can I do for the event?'" said Angela Harrold, who started the Balloon Glow Complaints Facebook page in October 2018 to warn others.

Garvie, who operates under a business called Midflo and uses several aliases, has also left a trail of jilted vendors in cities where he's staged balloon ride events. He was charged with failing to pay a $5,572 hotel bill in March 2018, according to court records, during the Sarasota Balloon Festival. The charge was dropped in November.

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In November, Atlanta Balloon Glow event director Ricky Garvie was arrested in Florida in connection with an unpaid hotel bill near one of his ballooning events in March. The charge was dropped in November.

In November, Atlanta Balloon Glow event director Ricky Garvie was arrested in Florida in connection with an unpaid hotel bill near one of his ballooning events in March. The charge was dropped in November.

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In November, Atlanta Balloon Glow event director Ricky Garvie was arrested in Florida in connection with an unpaid hotel bill near one of his ballooning events in March. The charge was dropped in November.

More seriously, a balloon seller in Indiana said Garvie didn't pay him for a $20,000 balloon in 2018 that police found at one of Garvie's events hundreds of miles away in Florida in March. Garvie was charged with theft in Indiana in April. That charge is pending, according to records.

“He almost single-handedly put me out of business,” said Andy Richardson, owner of Adams Balloons, who said he sold Garvie the balloon.

» UPDATE: Charge dropped against Atlanta Balloon Glow organizer

Garvie agreed to meet an AJC reporter at Piedmont Park Thursday morning but then declined to answer any questions about his background, and instead issued a veiled threat about “negative” coverage.

“Anything that’s going in the story, my attorney is going to look at it,” he said.

Garvie, a tall man with light brown hair who speaks with a British accent, bounced around the southeastern corner of the park taking calls and speaking to festival vendors, as an AJC reporter spent two hours trying to put questions to him in conversations that never lasted more than a few minutes.

Thursday afternoon, with storms moving into the metro area, Garvie called the AJC and pledged refunds to customers who request them.

Weather hazards

This weekend's rides in Piedmont Park are sold out, according to Eventbrite, the online ticket seller handling Garvie's event. Although social media numbers are often unreliable, the Facebook page for the Atlanta Balloon Glow says that more than 200,000 Facebook users were interested in the event, and more than 13,000 said they were going.

Garvie obtained a permit for the event from Piedmont Park. Garvie himself, however, does not have a license to fly hot air balloons with passengers, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, and he said he does not fly the balloons at his events. He applied to be a student pilot three months ago.

He requires ticket buyers to sign a waiver before flying in a balloon but discloses no information to them about who will actually pilot the hot air balloons.

Garvie tells ticket buyers that rides are “strictly non-refundable,” though he has refunded some tickets in the past, including from the Atlanta event in February.

He tells ticket buyers they can be re-booked for rides another day if the balloons can’t fly because of “weather conditions,” but doesn’t disclose what weather conditions might prevent balloons from flying.

Events are advertised as “rain or shine,” even though hot air balloons cannot be flown in rain. The description for the Piedmont Park event says nothing about wind, which is often the cause of making balloons unsafe to fly.

A large air show held in Michigan last month that drew seasoned balloonists from all over the country over the Fourth of July informed spectators that balloons would not fly if winds exceeded 12 miles per hour, if visibility was lower than one to three miles, if a nearby front signaled the possibility of changing winds, and if thunderstorms were within 100 miles of the area.

“A lightning strike to a balloon is an extremely dangerous hazard,” the air show said in an FAQ to visitors.

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A hot air balloon is inflated with cold air at Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Thursday, August 1, 2019. The Atlanta Balloon Glow event, which is said to feature more than 10 tethered hot air balloons for rides, is set for August 1 through August 4. Weather often forces the balloons to be grounded. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

A hot air balloon is inflated with cold air at Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Thursday, August 1, 2019. The Atlanta Balloon Glow event, which is said to feature more than 10 tethered hot air balloons for rides, is set for August 1 through August 4. Weather often forces the balloons to be grounded. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

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A hot air balloon is inflated with cold air at Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Thursday, August 1, 2019. The Atlanta Balloon Glow event, which is said to feature more than 10 tethered hot air balloons for rides, is set for August 1 through August 4. Weather often forces the balloons to be grounded. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Chris Sabia, owner of Kansas City Aerosports, said tethered hot air balloons should remain grounded if wind speeds exceed 10 miles per hour.

“A reputable organization will not pre-sell those tethered rides because tethered rides are very weather dependent,” Sabia said.

Sabia sued Garvie in 2017 after he said the event organizer failed to pay what he owed for balloon rentals for an event in Tulsa, Okla., in 2016. The suit was settled but Sabia said he lost money in the deal.

“(This) tainted my judgment, and it has been an emotionally draining experience,” Sabia said. He said he has had to defend his reputation to the hot air ballooning community.

Two pilots partnering with Garvie in Atlanta this weekend told an AJC reporter that Garvie paid them on time, and stressed that they would not fly if conditions were unsafe.

Wil LaPointe, a pilot from Tulsa, Okla., said he’d rather deal with complaints from customers than risk flying in unsafe conditions, which he described as rain or wind speeds higher than seven miles per hour.

In a brief exchange with the AJC, Garvie said, “If we can’t go up, we don’t go up.”

Controversy in Great Britain

Sgt. Cortez Stafford with Atlanta Fire Rescue said fire marshals will be at the park to “make sure everything goes smoothly.” Stafford said the city is expecting 5,000 to 8,000 attendees and balloons offering rides will be limited to four to six people per ride.

“The balloons will be tethered to the ground and will not be free floating,” Stafford said. “They will only stay above the park and not over adjacent neighborhoods and business. The area directly below the balloons will be cordoned off to spectators for their safety and the safety of riders.”

After Garvie canceled the original Atlanta balloon festival in February, he said that he refunded ticket buyers about $16,000, showing a summary of the refunds to an AJC reporter on his Eventbrite festival page.

“If life happens, we are going to look after you,” he said.

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Atlanta Balloon Glow event director Ricky Garvie (right) speaks about the event with Rekha Sareen (center) and Vishal Sareen (left) at Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Thursday, August 1, 2019. The Atlanta Balloon Glow event, which is said to feature more than 10 tethered hot air balloons for rides, is set for August 1 through August 4. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Atlanta Balloon Glow event director Ricky Garvie (right) speaks about the event with Rekha Sareen (center) and Vishal Sareen (left) at Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Thursday, August 1, 2019. The Atlanta Balloon Glow event, which is said to feature more than 10 tethered hot air balloons for rides, is set for August 1 through August 4. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

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Atlanta Balloon Glow event director Ricky Garvie (right) speaks about the event with Rekha Sareen (center) and Vishal Sareen (left) at Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Thursday, August 1, 2019. The Atlanta Balloon Glow event, which is said to feature more than 10 tethered hot air balloons for rides, is set for August 1 through August 4. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Garvie was also controversial in his native Great Britain. He ran for the British Parliament in 2015 but the Labour Party suspended him for failing to disclose a conviction for fraudulently purchasing railway tickets.

He was also investigated by police for sending allegedly inappropriate Snapchat messages to a minor, but police determined no laws had been broken, according to the Daily Mail.

"My financial plan was poor and I was completely irresponsible by choosing to run up that debt, but I don't accept that there is any evidence that I intentionally tried to keep money from the train company," Garvie said in court in his defense, the BBC reported. "I haven't been dishonest in any way. I was just stupid."