Rana Abdulla's dream was to build a cafe and serve traditional Arabic comfort food from recipes handed down from her family.
But her dream hit a serious setback after she paid a contractor over $88,000, her family's life savings, to build the restaurant. That contractor did some demolition, but allegedly walked away without completing the job.
"It wasn't until there was signs, like lots of signs, that there was no intention to do the work, and it was a lot of suspicion in my heart… it was like a nightmare for me," said Abdulla.
In late 2016, Abdulla and her husband entered into a contract with Sean Carlson and his company, Blue Nile Capital Inc, to become a project manager for the renovations of her and her daughter's dream restaurant, Yafa Café at 1785 Portage Avenue.
Abdulla contacted Carlson in 2015 when she replied to an ad on Kijiji for a general contractor. She was looking for someone who could help her assess construction costs when she first began looking at properties.
According to the Blue Nile Capital's website, it offers project management, general contracting, construction management and project mediation services.
The website also states that Blue Nile Capital is "involved in development work and serves as a capital fund with a percentage of profits going to a variety of small-scale building projects in East Africa."
Abdulla said when they finally purchased a property in 2016, Carlson put in a bid for the work and they weren't initially going to hire him, but he persisted.
"He was very persuasive. He was very polite and very soft spoken. He convinced the people [we were working with] that he was very knowledgeable, and so the entire team trusted him," said Abdulla,
Abdulla said they entered into a contract with him in September of 2016, and in October he asked for payments up front, in order to hire sub-contractors and order materials, she said.
"We paid the money in advance, but then we come to the [building] and it's empty of workers," she said.
Abdulla wrote Carlson a series of cheques, totaling more than $80,000 over the the last few months of 2016.
"After two weeks I questioned it. Where's the inventory? Where the money went? Like what did you buy with the money?" she said.
Abdullah said she was offered several reasons for the delay in work, but it wasn't until early 2017 when one of the sub-contractors, who was hired to do stucco work, informed Abdulla that he hadn't been paid, that she knew something wasn't right.
"[Carlson] gave us a lot of promises and told us not to worry, and we didn't worry," said Abdulla.
"It was just like a sting in my heart," she said.
Abdulla ended her contract with Carlson in March 2017 and learned $6,405 was paid to subcontractors. According to a statement of claim filed with the courts, the defendants "refused and/or failed to provide any accounting or record of the remaining $81,948," the lawsuit said.
Carlson did not return CBC requests for an interview.
Several civil suits filed in 2017, default judgments awarded
Over the course of 2017, six civil suits were filed against Sean Carlson and Blue Nile Capital Inc. Three of the cases have resulted in default judgments in excess of $200,000 awarded to the plaintiffs because Carlson failed to respond and didn't show up in court.
Abudulla's lawyer requested a default judgment in September after Carlson did not show up to court.
Cavy Braun, the owner of L&A Stucco, the company hired to work on Abdulla's Cafe, is one of the people with outstanding claims against Carlson.
He said Carlson's references checked out and that he had a good reputation in the construction community.
"[He was a] really smooth talker, I had a lot of confidence in him and I believed he was a really nice guy," said Braun about his initial interactions with Carlson.
Braun said because it was a smaller job, he offered to bill when the work was completed, and didn't take a deposit because he trusted Carlson.
"Invoices went out, and cheques never came," said Braun.
Abdulla has since paid Braun a portion of what he was owed, as well as paying some of the other subcontractors who also didn't get paid by Carlson.
"We paid whatever we could, so it was double payment, because we already paid [Carlson] for everything," she said.
Braun is suing Carlson for the rest.
'Promises to pay'
Both Braun and Abdulla had been in contact with Carlson up until a few weeks ago, but his phone is now disconnected.
"All we get is promises, promises to pay," said Abdulla. "He didn't keep any of the promises, he just ran away with the money."
Braun said he was offered several reasons for why he wasn't paid, and at one point, was written a cheque that bounced.
"There was always another job that he was working on to get payment, but it was just robbing Peter to pay Paul," said Braun.
'It's a personal violation'
Abdulla said the ordeal has been very stressful on her and her family. She said the money she gave to Carlson belonged to her and her daughter, their life savings.
"It's very unfortunate that we feel that we have been taken advantage of," she said.
"It's a personal violation. It's a victimization. It's very difficult, it causes a lot of trauma," she said.
Abdulla has contacted others who have filed suits against Carlson in hopes of finding answers and support.
"It was terrible to know that there were[others]," she said.
Abdulla also said she is disappointed that police could not help her, and was told what took place was not a crime.
"Sorry we cannot take your claim, this is not a financial crime, this is a bad business decision. The fact that he did some work, demolition work, it means that there was no intention of a crime," she said of the interaction with police.
Braun said he was also turned away by police.
"The first time I went in they said it's a civil matter, so your report's not going to do anything," said Braun.
A spokesperson for the Winnipeg Police Service said in email to CBC that if someone believes they have been defrauded they are encouraged to make a police report.
"In some circumstances police have taken action where the evidence provided grounds to establish criminality," they said.
"Consumer Protection has a role to play in some cases and can impose fines on contractors/businesses.The civil courts are the mechanism for civil contract dispute resolution," the spokesperson said.
Braun says leaving it up to the courts puts the onus on the plaintiffs to collect.
"I'm really disappointed...because he's literally taking money from people and leaving."
Up to plaintiffs to collect
Abdulla and Braun hope by going public with their story, they can prevent the same thing from happening to others.
Abdulla says they don't have much hope of seeing the money.
"Unfortunately the judicial system doesn't help, it's up to you to deal with it and collect your money, until you give up," said Abdulla.
Abdulla's project is near completion now, after family and friends stepped in to help her.
She says she will continue to fight for the money, and won't allow the experience to keep her from achieving her dream.
"I'm very optimistic, I will never give up," she said.