It was branded as an outdoor adventure.
Only a three-hour drive southwest of Chicago, customers could escape to the town of Farmington, Ill., staying at an eight-bedroom, 30-acre lakeside vacation rental retreat.
Surrounded by open farm land, online advertisements for “Norris Outdoor Adventure” showed water slides, a rope swing, games for the kids, and even more reassuring, a smiling, friendly and relatable owner dedicated to their every need.
The rental was described as a dream find for many who were planning cross-country family reunions, even weddings at the space.
But the dream wasn’t a reality.
Instead, customers tell NBC 5 they had their reservations canceled, sometimes literally last minute as they were driving down to the property.
When customers called the owner for their refund, with contracts in hand laying out that very promise, they say the owner “ghosted” them, never to be heard from again.
For months, NBC 5 Responds has investigated how a single vacation rental outside of Peoria took many Chicago-area families for thousands of dollars, and the mysterious owner behind the listing that these customers say is to blame.
That owner dodged our calls, emails and requests for comment over many months, offering no insight into what happened.
The complaints have gotten the attention of law enforcement in Farmington, who confirmed to NBC 5 they are actively investigating many complaints involving the property and its owner.
Records 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 many hopeful customers now believe they will never see in person.
It all started with one customer’s experience, and as NBC 5 continued to ask questions, the list grew to include many more.
Melissa Oskroba out of Naperville told NBC 5 earlier this year she discovered “Norris Outdoor Adventure” while surfing through the vacation rental website VRBO.
“We were super excited about it,” Oskroba said. “[Norris] checked off all of our areas: eight bedrooms, water, yard 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 attendance list growing each year, finding the right space proved to be harder than it sounds.
Clicking through the photos and videos of the property, Oskroba thought Norris seemed to be the perfect match for this cherished tradition. At $3,600 for three nights, and enough space for her entire party, Oskroba thought she hit the jackpot.
That’s when 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 was seemingly going so well, “I was about to call her to start locking up future years of reservations.”
Oskroba paid in full for a reservation this past Labor Day 2022, and months went by before the first curveball.
That’s when Oskroba said Shymansky messaged to say she had yanked the property from VRBO so she could more closely vet her guests. But there was a silver lining: Shymansky would be listing the property herself, offering 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 prior to their reservation date, and they can expect a full refund.
Oskroba reserved the property through Shymansky, not giving it a second thought until weeks later, when she tried to pull up the listing online.
“It had that 404 no longer valid website message,” Oskroba said. “Then I started digging and within probably 15-20 minutes is when I came across Yelp that had a lot of complaints on there.”
Customers on the business review website Yelp complained of falling into a trap Oskroba feared she was already in.
“The owner has literally stolen my deposit for the use of this property,” one Norris customer wrote.
Another said the owner, “took our money and never responded when we contacted her for keys.”
“They will take your money, sign contracts, then ghost you,” a third customer wrote.
Oskroba said she was beside herself.
“I just started crying,” Oskroba said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I going to do?’”
Oskroba said she contacted Shymansky to formally cancel the reservation, but eventually, she too was ghosted. No more friendly contacts from the owner, and no word on her refund.
Through her persistence, Oskroba decided to go another route: Find, organize and communicate with as many other Norris customers she could find online.
Oskroba said many got back to her, and eventually, someone in the group contacted NBC 5 Responds for assistance, saying they too were out big money, with no R&R to show for it.
Customers like Tinley Park grandmother Claudia Allred.
“I was determined,” Allred told NBC 5 Responds. “[Shymansky] is not going to keep my money!”
Allred’s family had stayed at Norris once before in 2020, so she booked again for the following year. She too felt charmed by Shmansky, remarking she was like a “best friend.”
But two days before her family was planning to make the second trip to the property in June 2021, Allred said Shymansky messaged her, canceling the reservation.
To date, Allred said she has received no refund.
Among the customers, NBC 5 also talked with two couples who were planning to have their weddings at the Norris 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,” said Jay Rudisill of BlueGrass, Iowa.
Jay Rudisill and his now-wife, Karen, visited the Norris property in-person and walked away thinking “that was where we were going to have our wedding.”
The couple put down a $9,300 deposit, but as the months ticked by closer to their date, Jay Rudisill said Shymansky grew silent.
Seeing that as a red flag, the Rudisills decided to cancel their reservation, knowing they would likely have a fraction of their deposit taken. They said they never imagined it would be the full amount.
“I’ve given up hope that I will ever see that money again,” Jay Rudisill told NBC 5, after he said Shymansky stopped returning his calls, emails and even letters demanding his money back.
The couple eventually held their wedding on a relative’s property, but were left feeling scorned.
When Allred heard about the Rudisills, and other customers in the self-named Norris “support group”, she said she couldn’t believe how many people were allegedly owed money from Shymansky.
“I felt like, ‘Why, you dirty dog! You’re doing this to so many people!’” Allred told NBC 5.
NBC 5 confirmed through contracts and customers’ communication with Shymansky six individual Norris customers who had their reservations canceled before staying at the property, and who were collectively owed more than $24,000.
Some customers have taken Shymansky to court, where they prevailed and had to file liens on the Norris property in hopes of getting any of their money back.
Fulton County records show those liens have company, including a lien filed on the property by the IRS for more than $470,000.
While the support group of customers was chasing Amy Shymansky for answers, so was NBC 5 Responds.
For months, we tried contacting Shymansky by phone, through emails and by contacting many attorneys who have represented Shymansky in court over the years.
Eventually, Trygve Meade, Shymansky’s most recent counsel, told NBC 5, “I’m sorry, but I haven’t been authorized by my client to make any comment on this situation. As a result, I have to decline.”
At one point, some of the support group members of former Norris customers said Meade had contacted them personally, promising news would come about their refunds. But eventually, they said he too “ghosted them.”
One office that did return our calls was the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department, serving the idyllic farmland 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 trouble for Shymansky continues.
NBC 5 Responds found a bench warrant active out of Peoria for Shymansky’s arrest, tied to an unrelated lawsuit and judgment not yet paid by the woman.
State records show that the business license for Norris Outdoor Adventure was “involuntarily dissolved” back in 2019, after the company failed to file annual reports with the Illinois Secretary of State’s office.
And most recently, court records show the former owner of the Farmington property, who sold it to Shymansky in a “contract for deed” transaction, prevailed in eviction court, with a Judge signing an eviction order forcing Shymansky to surrender and vacate the property by Aug. 26, 2022.
Shymansky is currently appealing the Judge’s decision.
Hearing this news hasn’t calmed the nerves of Shymansky’s scorned customers, who fear there may be more out there who have no idea what’s coming.
“I’m sad for people that don’t know this information,” Oskroba said. “They are excited about a memory that they’re going to make that is going to have the rug pulled out from under them.”