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Cecil County vineyard closes after owner pleads guilty to tax fraud, leaving couples without wedding venue

Bridal nightmare: A Cecil County wedding venue closed abruptly after its owner pleaded guilty to tax fraud.

Stacia Prassinas' wedding at The Winery at Elk Manor, a vineyard overlooking the Chesapeake Bay, was just two months away when she got a call from the caterer.

The Cecil County venue, which subcontracted the catering, hadn't paid, Prassinas was told. Nervous about what it meant for her big day, she called the venue's owner, Simon Tusha. She said he assured her everything was fine and that the Sept. 9 wedding would happen.

On Tuesday, she received the email that confirmed her lingering fears.

"We regret to inform you that The Winery at Elk Manor's ability to continue operations has been adversely impacted due to circumstances beyond our control," the venue wrote. "Accordingly, we will generally not be able to host weddings or other events after August 9, 2016, and the Winery will be unable to honor any prior agreements in that regard."

The gate to the vineyard was chained with a "CLOSED" sign. Prassinas and other brides-to-be and their families called the venue, frantic. No one answered. Their emails received no response.

She and her fiance, Christopher Silk, began looking into its owner. "That was kind of when we all panicked," Prassinas said.

Tusha, 43, of Forest Park, had pleaded guilty three months earlier to federal tax fraud stemming from more than $2.7 million in bribes prosecutors said he received as a technology executive from data center companies in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands from 2008 to 2010.

He faces up to five years in prison and a fine up to $250,000 for a fraud conspiracy charge.

Tusha did not return a message on his cellphone or a request for comment through a relative.

In addition to the $960,000 prosecutors say Tusha owes the Internal Revenue Service in unpaid taxes, his vineyard is being sued by Rouge Fine Catering for $215,000 the caterer said has gone unpaid under 28 wedding contracts. The lawsuit was filed July 8.

Jonathan Soudry, chef and owner of Rouge Fine Catering, said the venue had a record of late payments, but he became concerned when money stopped coming altogether. He hired a lawyer — and then called to warn couples of his suspicions that Elk Manor was in financial trouble.

The caterer's contract was with Elk Manor, not the couples, Soudry said, but he felt obligated to make sure they knew what was going on.

"We deal with a very vulnerable population. They're young people," Soudry said. "They don't have a lot of experience. They're putting together the most important event of their life. They're out there shopping with their life savings, or their parents'."

Prassinas, 29, of Jarrettsville said it was "sickening" to find out she'd have to replan her wedding, especially after Tusha called to reassure her.

"He promised me the world: My wedding would be fine, he had no intention of closing the venue," she said. "It's just so wrong on so many levels what he has done to us."

"It feels like a nightmare," she said.

The Elk Manor email did offer brides an option: an additional $1,000 fee to use the premises.

"He won't get another dime from us," Prassinas said.

Eva Steinhorn, 27, a Highland native who lives in Washington, had the same wedding date as Prassinas. The venue canceled her Tuesday walk-through at Elk Manor in an email Monday night; the next day, she received the message that it was closed.

Now Steinhorn and her family have less than a month to find a place to put the 250 guests — some of whom are flying in for the wedding.

"The last two days were not a good time," she said Thursday.

Steinhorn was incredulous at the additional fee request. The couple had already paid $8,500 in deposits to hold the wedding at the venue. The venue's email did not mention refunds.

"Why, if we pay another $1,000, are we expected to trust him?" she said.

Tori Marenna, 25, of Churchville, has a little more time to plan. Her Elk Manor wedding wasn't scheduled until May. But like the rest, she's still scrambling to find a place to have it.

Marenna initially thought it was a bad joke.

"How am I going to pay for another venue?" she said. "I've already paid a couple thousand dollars for this one."

Marenna had been looking forward to a "not-too-country, but nice, elegant, casual kind of wedding" at the vineyard.

"It still blows my mind how fast he just closed everything down without a word to everyone," she said. "It's absolutely rude."

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell

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