PEMBROKE PARK, Fla. – A South Florida wedding photographer skipped town, leaving a pattern of complaints behind.
After several couples contacted the "Call Christina" consumer protection hotline about Robert Shapiro of Studio M Events, Local 10 News investigative reporter Christina Vazquez tracked him down to a home he purchased last year in Nebraska.
Couples trusted the company to photograph their weddings, but when the man they paid didn't deliver, they said they weren't just cheated out of their money, but also memories of a treasured moment in their lives.
The bulk of the complaints filed against Shapiro and Studio M Events with the Better Business Bureau, wedding forums like TheKnot.com and state agencies claim the photographer didn't deliver either the printed pictures, photo albums and/or edited video for which the couples had paid.
There are also consistent complaints about the quality of his work.
According to Mary and Jeff Atlas, Shapiro didn't even bother to show up to their October 2014 wedding.
Shapiro wanted a full $5,000 up front. Jeff Atlas said instead they decided on a $1,500 deposit. About $500 went toward engagement photos that Mary Atlas was not very pleased with.
"But we needed something for our save the date," she said.
As their wedding day approached, she grew nervous. The couple could not get a hold of him.
"He somewhat fell off the face of the Earth," Jeff Atlas said.
Mary Atlas said Shapiro "just kind of took our money and ran."
Records show Robert E. Shapiro and Erika M. Shapiro purchased a home in Nebraska on March 26, 2014. That's a full seven months before the Atlas' wedding date.
According to the deed on file, the sale price for the Nebraska home was $221,000, but the loan amount was for $132,180.
Shapiro never refunded the couple with the outstanding $1,000. In fact, the couple never knew Shapiro had moved out of state until Vazquez began to investigate.
Omaha World-Herald reporter Robynn Tysver approached Shapiro while he was shoveling snow in his driveway to fight for answers for the South Florida couples who contacted Local 10.
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"How long does it take to get photos back to somebody after you've shot their wedding?" Tysver asked.
"Everyone has gotten their photos back," Shapiro stated. "It's just a couple of people who are still waiting, from my understanding, on a photo album or something to that effect. And I gave our information. I gave (my) contact information to Christina."
Vazquez made contact with Shapiro via email in January.
In a reply message, Shapiro stated:
"Although I am no longer in the event industry, the satisfaction of my former customers is highly important. Although I believe the services I provided to customers was of the highest quality, it is possible that my organization skills were not up to par. I want to make sure that the customers who contacted you receive the items they may still be waiting for. Please have them contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org so I can address their concerns right away."
Vazquez has extended his email to the couples who contacted Local 10.
"And are you going to give the money back to some people who are demanding refunds?" Tysver asked.
"Well, we can't give money back for something like that, but if they're waiting on a photo album we'll make good on that," Shapiro said. "We'll complete those."
"Why can't you give the money back?" Tysver asked.
"Well, our company is out of business for quite a while now and, uh, you know, I'm not in a position to do that," Shapiro said.
The Atlases scrambled to hire new vendors for their wedding. Calling the run-in with Shapiro a "learning experience," Mary Atlas said they did their homework the second time around, double-checking reviews. They went with Jaco Photo for photography and Megaset Photography for their video and could not have been more pleased with the product, especially after hearing stories from couples still trying to secure their printed pictures and promised albums years after the wedding date.
Among the couples still waiting are Brenna and Radiu Allen.
"It's something I can't do myself," explained Radiu via Skype from St. Petersburg. "I'm trusting someone else to take my most precious moment. I didn't really care about the price because of that."
The Allens said Shapiro made it to the wedding, but it took nearly a year after their December 2012 wedding date to secure the proofs.
"He didn't have any photography skills," Brenna Allen said.
Radiu Allen called it "something my son can make."
The Atlases feel like they are the lucky ones. Shapiro walking out on them opened the door to hire other vendors who delivered stunning pictures and a moving video.
"I would be satisfied as long as this guy never did it to somebody else," Jeff Atlas said.
Shapiro's disappearance in the weeks leading up to the wedding day certainly caused the Atlases stress, and they feel cheated out of the $1,000 they are still trying to secure from him. But as they sit back on their living room couch to watch their edited video produced by the vendor hired to replace Shapiro, holding hands and cuddling close, they know they were not cheated out of the chance to relive their special day.
It is something couples like the Allens may never enjoy -- something a refund could never replace.
"There's nothing he can actually do to justify what he has done," Radiu Allen said. "What can we give our grandsons or even our sons and daughters now?"
Vazquez checked with Nebraska's secretary of state and Department of Revenue. There is no business tax identification or registered LLC listed under the names of Robert E. Shapiro or Erika M. Shapiro in the state.
Follow Christina Vazquez on Twitter @CallChristinaTV
Follow Local 10 News on Twitter @WPLGLocal10