It was branded as an outdoor adventure.
Just a three-hour drive southwest of Chicago, customers were able to escape to the town of Farmington, Illinois, where they stayed in an eight-bedroom, 30-acre lakefront vacation rental property.
Surrounded by open farmland, online advertisements for “Norris Outdoor Adventure” showed water slides, a rope swing, games for the kids and more reassuringly, a smiling, friendly and recognizable owner who was committed to their every need.
The rental was described as a dream find for many planning family reunions across the country, even weddings in space.
But the dream was not reality.
Instead, customers tell NBC 5 that their reservations have been cancelled, sometimes literally at the last minute as they drove to the property.
When customers called the owner for their refund, with contracts in hand that spelled out exactly that promise, they said the owner had “ghosted” them, never to hear from again.
For months, NBC 5 Responds has been investigating how a single vacation rental outside Peoria has cost many families in the Chicago area thousands of dollars, and the mysterious owner behind the offer these customers say is to blame.
That owner dodged our phone calls, emails and requests for comment for many months and offered no insight into what was happening.
The complaints have attracted the attention of law enforcement officers in Farmington, who have confirmed to NBC 5 that they are actively investigating many complaints about the property and its owner.
Documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests paint a picture of a mountain of debt and despair, all centered around the spacious and charming property that many hopeful clients now believe will never see in person.
It all started with one customer’s experience, and as NBC 5 continued to ask questions, the list grew with many more.
Melissa Oskroba of Naperville told NBC 5 earlier this year that she discovered “Norris Outdoor Adventure” while surfing the vacation rental website VRBO.
“We were super excited about it,” Oskroba said. “[Norris] ticked off all our areas: eight bedrooms, water, garden for the kids. Affordable.”
For five years now, Oskroba and seven other friends and their immediate families have gathered for Labor Day. But with the kids and the attendance list growing every year, finding the right space proved harder than it sounds.
Clicking through the photos and videos of the property, Oskroba thought Norris seemed the perfect match for this cherished tradition. At $3,600 for three nights, and enough room for her entire party, Oskroba thought she had hit the jackpot.
Then she said she met Amy Shymansky, the owner of the property, and she felt a connection.
“It sounded like I was talking to my mom,” Oskroba recalls, noting that the experience seemed to be going so well, “I was about to call her to lock up future years of reservations.”
Oskroba paid in full for a reservation last Labor Day 2022 and months passed before the first curveball.
Then Oskroba said that Shymansky had sent a message to say that she had ripped the property from VRBO so she could better check on her guests. But there was a silver lining: Shymansky would offer the property himself and offer the same deal.
Oskroba, worried she couldn’t find a place in time with the same number of bedrooms and space for her family and friends, booked directly with Shymansky.
The deal included what Oskroba thought was protection: a contract with a clear cancellation policy, cancel a reservation 30 days or more before the reservation date and they can expect a full refund.
Oskroba reserved the property through Shymansky and didn’t think about it until weeks later, when she tried to get the offer online.
“It had that 404 no longer valid website message,” Oskroba said. “Then I started digging and within probably 15-20 minutes I came across Yelp with a lot of complaints there.”
Customers on business review website Yelp complained that they’d fallen into a trap Oskroba feared she was already in.
“The owner literally stole my deposit for the use of this property,” wrote one Norris client.
Another said the owner, “took our money and never responded when we contacted her for keys.”
“They will take your money, sign contracts and then ghost you,” wrote a third customer.
Oskroba said she was beside herself.
“I just started crying,” Oskroba said. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, what am I supposed to do?’”
Oskroba said she contacted Shymansky to formally cancel the reservation, but in the end she too became a ghost. No more friendly contacts from the owner and not a word about her refund.
Because of her persistence, Oskroba decided to take a different path: search, organize and communicate with as many other Norris customers she could find online.
Oskroba said many came back to her, and eventually someone in the group reached out to NBC 5 Responds for help, saying they didn’t have big money either, with no R&R to show.
Clients such as Tinley Park grandmother Claudia Allred.
“I was determined,” Allred told NBC 5 Reacts. “[Shymansky] not going to keep my money!”
Allred’s family had been to Norris once before in 2020, so booked them again for the following year. She, too, felt charmed by Shmansky and noted that she was like a “best friend.”
But two days before her family planned to make the second trip to the property in June 2021, Allred said Shymansky messaged her and canceled the reservation.
Until now, Allred said that she did not receive a refund.
Among the customers, NBC 5 also spoke to two couples who were planning to have their wedding on Norris’s property, but said they had their dream dates disappear along with their deposits.
“It was the first place we looked at and we fell in love,” says Jay Rudisill of BlueGrass, Iowa.
Jay Rudisill and his now-wife, Karen, visited Norris’ property in person and walked away thinking “that was where we would have our wedding.”
The couple made a $9,300 down payment, but as the months ticked closer to their date, Jay Rudisill said Shymansky went quiet.
The Rudisills saw that as a red flag and decided to cancel their reservation, knowing they would likely get a fraction of their deposit. They said they never thought it would be the full amount.
“I’ve given up hope of ever seeing that money again,” Jay Rudisill told NBC 5, after saying Shymansky stopped answering his calls, emails, and even letters.
The couple ended up holding their wedding on a relative’s property, but felt scorned.
When Allred learned about the Rudisills and other customers in the self-proclaimed Norris “support group,” she said she couldn’t believe how many people were said to be there. money owed from Shymansky.
“I was like, ‘Well, you dirty dog! You’re doing this to so many people!’” Allred told NBC 5.
NBC 5 confirmed through customer contracts and communications with Shymansky six individual Norris customers whose reservations had been canceled before staying at the property, and who collectively owed more than $24,000.
Some clients have taken Shymansky to court, where they prevailed and had to file liens on Norris’ property in hopes of getting their money back.
Fulton County records show those liens have company, including a lien filed by the IRS on the property for more than $470,000.
While the customer support group chased Amy Shymansky for answers, so was NBC 5 Responds.
For months we’ve tried to contact Shymansky by phone, emails, and by contacting many attorneys who have represented Shymansky in court over the years.
Finally, Trygve Meade, Shymansky’s most recent counsel, told NBC 5: “I’m sorry, but I have not received permission from my client to comment on this situation. That’s why I have to quit.”
At one point, some members of the support group of former Norris customers said that Meade had contacted them personally and that there would be promising news about their refunds. But in the end they said he too “haunted them.”
One office that answered our calls was the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department, which serves the idyllic farming area where Norris Outdoor Adventure is located on Dee Bee Road.
A spokesperson said investigators have “received complaints” [about] Norris Outdoor Adventure, and are conducting an investigation.”
The troubles for Shymansky continue.
NBC 5 Responds found a warrant from Peoria for Shymansky’s arrest, linked to an unrelated lawsuit and a verdict that had not yet been paid by the woman.
State records show that the business license for Norris Outdoor Adventure was “involuntarily terminated” in 2019, after the company failed to file annual reports with the Illinois Secretary of State’s office.
And recently, court records show that the former owner of the Farmington estate, who sold it to Shymansky in a “contract for deed” transaction, prevailed in the eviction court, with a judge signing an eviction notice and Shymansky forced to surrender. and to vacate the property by August 26, 2022.
Shymansky is currently appealing the judge’s decision.
Hearing this news hasn’t calmed the nerves of Shymansky’s scorned clients, who fear there are more out there who have no idea what’s to come.
“I’m sad for people who don’t know this information,” Oskroba said. “They’re excited about a memory they’re going to make that has the rug pulled out from under them.”