Cecil Whig - - WE ATHE R -

re­turned,” he said.

Beckel said he re­sorted to friend­ing and mes­sag­ing the venue’s owner, Si­mon Tusha, on Face­book to try to get an­swers as to the prepa­ra­tion for their big day.

“I told him that I had ques­tions about my up­com­ing event at Elk Manor and asked if he would be in the of­fice to talk,” Beckel said. “He replied ‘ Sorry, I’m out for two weeks, what is the date of your wed­ding?’ I replied and he didn’t re­spond. So I mes­saged him again and said, ‘ Look, I’ll get to the chase. We paid you a lot of money and it turned out that you haven’t paid the bal­ance due to the caterer a few months ago.’”

Af­ter re­ceiv­ing no re­sponse again, Beckel reached out for an an­swer and he said Tusha blocked him from fur­ther com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Grow­ing num­ber of

af­fected Un­for­tu­nately Beckel and his bride-to-be aren’t alone, as nu­mer­ous other cou­ples called the Whig this week to share nearly iden­ti­cal sto­ries of lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and un­ful­filled prom­ises.

Lind­say Carter and Mike Bier­man, of Nor­wood, Pa., were sched­uled to be wed at Elk Manor on Sept. 17, but now the cou­ple are left with­out $27,000 they made in pay­ments.

Carter said she and her fi­ancée were look­ing for a venue that would re­mind guests of life on the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay be­cause her father has kept a sail­boat at Rock Hall for decades.

“We sched­uled a tour of ap­point­ments at venues around the re­gion one day,” she said Wed­nes­day. “Elk Manor was first and af­ter we saw it, we can­celed all of our other ap­point­ments. That’s how beau­ti­ful of a prop­erty it is, although it pains me to say that now.”

Right from the start, Carter said some­thing felt amiss about the op­er­a­tion at Elk Manor.

“There was no com­mu­ni­ca­tion what­so­ever and no­body ever signed their emails with a real name, just generic Elk Manor lines,” she said. “They didn’t even have our ad­dress on file for two months af­ter our down pay­ment. I never felt com­fort­able con­tact­ing them be­cause I never knew who to con­tact.”

Like Beckel and Sieminski, how­ever, things just pro­gres­sively worse over the past sev­eral weeks as Bier­man and Carter’s father ar­gued with Tusha over the lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion ahead of the wed­ding and a no­tice from the caterer that the venue had failed to pay for its ser­vices.

“My dad even asked him one day, ‘Father to father, I want you to tell me, would you want this to hap­pen to your daugh­ter on her wed­ding day?’ And Si­mon said, ‘No, I wouldn’t,’” Carter said.

On Tues­day night, Carter and Bier­man, like many other cou­ples to be wed this fall, re­ceived an email that no­ti­fied them of the venue’s clos­ing with a small caveat: For an ad­di­tional $1,000, staff mem­bers would open the prop­erty’s gates to al­low wed­dings to run as planned. Carter balked. “That’s dis­gust­ing. I couldn’t pay them an­other cent,” she said.

Dif­fi­cult days ahead Brides from around the re­gion be­gan shar­ing hor­ror sto­ries on so­cial me­dia early this week about unan­swered phone calls, can­celed meet­ings and locked gates with a “closed” sign. On Tues­day af­ter­noon, the venue’s Face­book page was deleted, and phone lines turned off. Then on Wed­nes­day morn­ing, many brides re­ceived a form email no­ti­fy­ing them of the venue’s clo­sure ef­fec­tive Tues­day.

“We re­gret to in­form you that, due to cir­cum­stances be­yond our con­trol, The Win­ery at Elk Manor will cease op­er­a­tions ef­fec­tive Au­gust 9, 2016. As a re­sult of this de­ci­sion, we will not be able to host any wed­dings or other events af­ter this date,” the email reads. “We are aware of the im­pact this will have on our val­ued cus­tomers and friends, and we thank you for your pa­tron­age and sup­port over the last sev­eral years.”

The email fur­ther sug­gests that if a cou­ple pur­chased wed­ding in­sur­ance that they file a claim with their agency to re­coup lost funds. For those who paid with credit cards, claims to their credit com­pa­nies may also al­low them to re­im­burse charges re­lated to the venue’s clo­sure.

But for those who paid in cash or check — a com­mon oc­cur­rence for many plan­ning a wed­ding — it will not be so easy to get a re­fund. If Elk Manor en­ters bank­ruptcy, then cou­ples would need to file a proof of claim with the bank­ruptcy court. If it doesn’t file for bank­ruptcy, then cou­ples would need to seek re­dress through civil law­suits.

The scene is rem­i­nis­cent to the clo­sure of Jodl­bauer’s Fur­ni­ture in Elk­ton in June 2015, when a quiet clo­sure there left scores of cus­tomers clue­less as to how to re­trieve the fur­ni­ture that many had made sev­eral thou­sand of dol­lars in down pay­ments on. Jodl­bauer’s ended up in Chap­ter 7 Bank­ruptcy, liq­ui­dat­ing its as­sets through a nearly year­long fore­clo­sure sale, but some cus­tomers re­ported re­ceiv­ing their items through a bank-ap­pointed sales team. Tusha de­faults on loan Tusha, a 43-year-old For­est Hill busi­ness­man and for­mer Google ex­ec­u­tive, pur­chased the 162-acre, wa­ter­front Elk Manor horse farm in July 2011 and turned it into a vi­able wed­ding venue, but not with­out stir­ring con­tro­versy along the way. He first en­vi­sioned open­ing a wed­ding venue with a bed and break­fast at the Rivers Edge Road prop­erty, but the project was not prop­erly zoned for the largely res­i­den­tial area. Neigh­bors even or­ga­nized protests at­tempt­ing to dis­suade po­ten­tial wed­ding cus­tomers and clients.

Af­ter the Ce­cil County Board of Zon­ing Ap­peals de­nied a spe­cial ex­cep­tion for the prop­erty, Tusha in­stead filed for the prop­erty to be­come a win­ery, plant­ing grapes and skirt­ing other po­ten­tially prob­lem­atic zon­ing re­stric­tions. Since then, his prop­erty has hosted scores of wed­dings and be­come an event site for other fundrais­ers.

His op­er­a­tion at Elk Manor was im­pacted by his re­cent guilty plea in a fed­eral tax fraud case, though. On May 20, he pleaded guilty to con­spir­acy to ob­struct and im­pede the IRS, de­fraud­ing the govern­ment of nearly $1 mil­lion in tax re­turns. Tusha ad­mit­ted in fed­eral court in Pitts­burgh that he re­ceived some $3.2 mil­lion in kick­backs from com­pa­nies in the United King­dom and the Nether­lands who were ne­go­ti­at­ing con­tracts for data cen­ters with Google and then hid the money from his em­ployer and the IRS through a se­ries of shell com­pa­nies he and his co-con­spir­a­tors cre­ated, ac­cord­ing to U.S. District Court records.

De­spite those trou­bles, Tusha and the venue con­tin­ued to deny that his plea would af­fect the venue. In fact, Tusha replied per­son­ally July 1 to one bride’s con­cern on Face­book, writ­ing “Elk Manor is fine and grow­ing, not to worry.” It was a mes­sage he re­peated in a July 5 in­ter­view with the Whig, in which he said his wife, Gretchen, now man­aged the venue and there­fore it would be un­af­fected by his plea deal.

The re­al­ity, how­ever, was that the Tushas and their busi­ness were run­ning into de­fault on nearly $5 mil­lion in loans from BB&T Bank. On Aug. 2, BB&T lawyers filed a com­plaint for con­fes­sion of judg­ment in Ce­cil County Cir­cuit Court, ar­gu­ing that the Tushas and their as­so­ci­ated busi­nesses had vi­o­lated the terms of their loan, ac­cord­ing to court records.

Among the rea­sons that the bank’s le­gal team lists for the de­fault are the Tushas’ false as­ser­tion that they had no tax li­a­bil­i­ties prior to ob­tain­ing the loan, that they used pro­ceeds of the loan for ques­tion­able pur­poses that were never ex­plained, that they failed to sub­mit tax re­turns or busi­ness state­ments to the bank in a timely man­ner, that they pledged the busi­ness’ real prop­erty to an­other man­age­ment group with­out the bank’s con­sent and that the bor­row­ers’ fi­nan­cial con­di­tion wors­ened due to Si­mon Tusha’s guilty plea to tax fraud, ac­cord­ing to court records.

On Aug. 2, the Tushas’ lawyer en­tered judg­ments against them as a re­sult of the bank’s pres­sure, ex­pe­dit­ing the busi­ness’ clo­sure that would hap­pen about a week later.

Com­mu­nity helps out If there’s any good news to arise out of this sit­u­a­tion, it’s the wed­ding com­mu­nity mem­bers who have come out in droves to as­sist Elk Manor’s cou­ples to find a new venue and more, some­times with just a few days to spare.

Venues like the Ch­e­sa­peake Inn, Worsell Manor and The An­chor­age in Ce­cil County as well as more than a dozen in neigh­bor­ing coun­ties and states are send­ing out of­fers to cou­ples, some­times even at a dis­count, to make sure that their wed­ding day moves for­ward as planned.

Gian­marco Mar­tus­celli, owner of the Ch­e­sa­peake Inn in Ch­e­sa­peake City, has been com­mu­ni­cat­ing di­rectly with brides of­fer­ing his busi­ness’ help, but he said Tues­day that un­for­tu­nately many of the sought-af­ter dates have been booked for months.

“We’ve been telling brides that if we can­not ac­com­mo­date you here, but you can find an­other venue with an open date, we’ll cater it,” he said, not­ing that Septem­ber and Oc­to­ber are prime wed­ding months and there­fore open dates any­where may be hard to find this late.

For those brides sched­uled for a 2017 wed­ding at Elk Manor, but catered by Ch­e­sa­peake Inn, Mar­tus­celli said he’s been reach­ing out with of­fers at the Inn.

“I feel ter­ri­ble,” he said. “Hope­fully we can help some brides out.”

The “Elk Manor brides” as they’ve taken to call­ing them­selves are also work­ing to­gether to try to help one an­other over­come the lat­est ob­sta­cle to the al­tar. They even formed a Face­book sup­port page, Face­book. com/ elk­manor­p­re­se­vere/, to col­lab­o­rate.

“We’re es­sen­tially good friends with like nine of the other Elk Manor brides at this point,” Carter, the Sept. 17 bride, said. “We email and call con­stantly about up­dates we’ve found that could help.”

For the cou­ples who were due to walk down the aisle in a mat­ter of days, how­ever, it’s a dif­fi­cult fu­ture ahead.

Beckel said he and his fi­ancée Sieminski spent all of Tues­day and Wed­nes­day call­ing their guests and no­ti­fy­ing them of a post­pone­ment. Luck­ily many of their guests were lo­cal and those trav­el­ing were able to re­ceive fa­vor­able ac­com­mo­da­tions. He said that the cou­ple would be­gin look­ing at other op­tions soon with the hope of not pro­long­ing their en­gage­ment de­spite los­ing $20,000 in the or­deal.

“We were both very ex­cited to have our pic­turesque wed­ding and spend the day with the peo­ple we care about, but it didn’t play out that way,” Beckel said. “I think Si­mon made some pretty fi­nan­cially ir­re­spon­si­ble moves along the way and now we’re suf­fer­ing from that.”

For Carter and her fi­ancé Bier­man, it’s a much more painful re­al­iza­tion af­ter hav­ing to can­cel their Septem­ber wed­ding for 235 peo­ple.

“We have drained our bank ac­counts to try to pay for this wed­ding,” she said. “While our caterer has been so help­ful, they can­not pull off our wed­ding for what we’ve paid them so far.”

The cou­ple looked at three other venues in the area this week, but they’ve come to re­al­ize that they just can­not af­ford a new wed­ding with­out get­ting their funds back from Elk Manor.

“We had al­ready paid for a cruise for our hon­ey­moon, so now we’re just plan­ning on elop­ing be­fore then and get­ting away to for­get about all this for a while,” she said.

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