When Elijah Beckel and Stephanie Sieminski began looking at wedding venues last year, the North East couple instantly fell in love with Elk Manor Winery’s view of the Chesapeake Bay after being referred by a cousin.

“It was a beautiful property,” Beckel recalled Wednesday. “It’s the picturesque wedding venue if you want an outside ceremony and reception by the water.”

The couple’s dream wedding quickly became a nightmare, however, the closer they got to their scheduled wedding day: this Saturday.

“Over the last two to three weeks, I could not get into touch with anybody. I must have called the venue 40 times and left a number of messages that were never 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.’”

Elk Manor closes

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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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