Brides jilted by Valpo dress shop
By Amy Lavalley Post-Tribune correspondent August 7, 2012 8:24PM
Samantha McWhirter peers into the front door of Sisters Bridal boutique in Valparaiso Monday Aug. 6, 2012. The business appears to have closed abruptly leaving several brides without their gowns or bridesmaid's dresses. McWhirter, of Valparaiso, said she is scheduled to be married in less than a month. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 9, 2012 6:15AM
VALPARAISO — Samantha McWhirter is getting married Sept. 1.
In February, she ordered her dress from Sisters Bridal Boutique and, in late March, her five bridesmaids ordered dresses there as well. An usher for the wedding was going to get a tuxedo from the shop, too.
McWhirter, of Valparaiso, was supposed to get all the dresses six weeks ago. Now, she has nothing. She and the bridesmaids paid in full for the dresses and the usher paid half the bill for his tux — more than $3,000 total among members of the wedding party.
Over the past several days, she — and countless other brides and bridesmaids in the region — found out Sisters Bridal, at 902 Calumet Ave., appears to have shut down. Owner Terry Berntsen’s voice mailbox on her cell phone is full, and she is not responding to emails from her customers — or the Post-Tribune — about what’s happening with her shop. The listed number for her business also goes unanswered.
“She kept telling us they’ll be here any day,” McWhirter said of the dresses, adding Berntsen “seemed so nice and trustworthy” when McWhirter went into the shop with her bridesmaids.
Desperate and unable to reach Berntsen, McWhirter bought a bridal gown off the rack and her bridesmaids ordered dresses from another retailer.
“In the past couple of days, I have spent almost $2,000,” she said.
No one seems to know where Berntsen went, or why she so suddenly shut her shop down. Disgruntled customers plastered the front of the building with notes accusing Berntsen of thievery, and various entities are hearing that the boutique is shuttered, leaving its clients in the lurch as their wedding days near.
A peek into the shop’s dark windows shows a handful of dresses on the racks and not much else. When Sarah Rehder of Michigan City showed up Tuesday morning to find out what was going on — she ordered a bridesmaids dress for her brother’s Sept. 8 wedding — a United Parcel Service deliveryman rounded the corner.
“You’re not going to find her. She skated. It’s not good,” he said before he took off.
The Valparaiso Police Department received two complaints about the business, on Aug. 2 and Aug. 4, though such matters would typically land in civil court, said Sgt. Michael Grennes, the department’s public information officer.
And though Sisters Bridal is not a member of the Greater Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce or the Better Business Bureau, both organizations are fielding complaints about the boutique.
According to its website, the BBB has received four complaints about the boutique since Aug. 3. The site notes that “the store is now closed” and it appears it is no longer in business.
The chamber, meanwhile, has been referring callers to bridal boutiques that are chamber members.
This isn’t the first time Sisters Bridal generated angry calls to the chamber; Danielle Oeding, the chamber’s vice president for sales and marketing, said the chamber received complaints about Sisters Bridal when it was located at 303 Jefferson St. and closed up.
“When it reopened, I was quite surprised,” she said, adding the shop was first located on Lincolnway.
According to the Indiana Secretary of State website, Sisters Bridal was incorporated on Feb. 5, 1992, with a listed address at 1805 E. Lincolnway in Valparaiso. Madeline Reynolds of North Judson is listed as company president, and Berntsen, with a post office box in Kouts, is listed as secretary. It was administratively dissolved on Jan. 1, 2008; a contact number for Reynolds could not be found.
The shop moved to the Calumet Avenue location in late 2010, with a two-year lease that officially began on Feb. 1, 2011, according to Pedro Azevedo, who owns the building. Berntsen consistently paid her $1,800 monthly rent late but also paid a late fee, so Azevedo didn’t move to evict her, until now.
Berntsen is two months behind on the rent, said Azevedo, who shared an email from Berntsen dated July 22, asking Azevedo not to cash her rent checks because her automatic deposits had not deposited into her account yet.
He started getting calls late last week about the salon and used his key to go in and find out what was going on.
“Everybody’s trying to reach her and all of a sudden, she disappears,” he said, adding he also has not been able to reach Berntsen. “She moved 90 percent of the stuff out. It’s clear she moved out because she left a bunch of garbage there.”
Azevedo feels sorry for Berntsen’s clients but can’t help them. He has a date later this month in small claims court to evict Berntsen, though he doesn’t know how to reach her to get her the summons.
“We’re going to sue her for damage, breach of contract, whatever we can, and I think there will be a line behind us,” he said.
McWhirter, too, said she will be going to court, and is reaching out to the other brides and bridesmaids who didn’t get their dresses to file suit against Berntsen.
Even Serendipity Salon and Boutique next door got stiffed; the salon director said the two businesses were supposed to share trash service, but Berntsen never paid her share.
“I guarantee she’s not going to do any more business in Valparaiso,” Azevedo said.