It was one of the peculiar features of the Abbey Inn: a couple might enjoy a holiday in a romantic suite surrounded by southern Indiana woods — and never meet another soul.
No other guests, sometimes. No full-time staff. Often no clerk. "Your stay is private," read the now-defunct hotel website in the spring of 2016. "You may not see another person."
The place looked pretty to Katrina Arthur. From the outside, the Abbey seemed to fit its name, a little forest sanctuary, painted white like a church. So she and her husband booked a weekend getaway in March last year. Then they found out what lay beyond the surface.
A deception lawsuit submitted last week by the state of Indiana against the hotel's owner claims that Arthur never got to see a thick policy document that listed certain other peculiarities about the Abbey.
"We hope you enjoy your stay with us," read a page buried deeper on the website, beyond the pretty pictures of flowers and white walls. "However, occasionally things do go wrong."
The power breakers sometimes tripped at night, for example, and no staff members were there to restore the power until morning. There were no phones in the suites.
There sometimes were swarms of lady bugs, and flying roaches liked to gather around the hot tubs. "Please remember you are coming to the woods!" read the page that Arthur said she never saw.
And it offered an unusual warning, which is now the basis of the state's lawsuit: guests had best be careful what they said about the hotel's problems. Because the Abbey Inn had ways to punish them.
Katrina Arthur takes a holiday
The Abbey sits off a state road in Brown County, near the gate to a state forest. Guests often arrive to find no staff at all, the state wrote in its lawsuit — just a packet waiting for them with the room keys.
But when the couple arrived from two counties over last spring, they did have a meeting with an employee, if a fleeting one. "Finally came to desk," Arthur wrote in her complaint letter to the state. "Had me sign receipt for US$230 [$328] for the room, then left."
She never saw the clerk again, according to the lawsuit. And things started to go wrong as soon as the couple walked into the room.
"Smelt like sewer," Arthur wrote in her complaint. The air conditioning didn't work, either. "We started checking the sheets and the bed," she told the ABC affiliate RTV. "I found hairs, dirt."
She went to the desk to complain, according to the lawsuit, but no one was there. Arthur found no employees in the hotel at all, according to the lawsuit. Nor did anyone answer when she phoned an after-hours number.
So, Arthur said, she cleaned the room herself. And then, with nothing else to do, she and her husband hunkered down for the night, with the strange odour.
When they woke the next day, they found the desk still deserted. So they put their room key in a drop box and got away from the Brown County woods. Only later, according to the state's lawsuit, did the Abbey contact the couple.
It came as an email, asking Arthur to leave a review online. As it turns out, what she would term her "nightmare" experience had not been entirely unique.
"Hair on the wall," read a review posted that same March on bedandbreakfast.com. "The power went out twice."
"It is basically a run-down cabin," someone wrote the previous year. And in 2011: "The sewage smell emitting from the bathroom was horrible, but it didn't seem to bother the insects and spiders."
These disturbing anecdotes were heavily outnumbered by guests who found the Abbey charming and its rustic solitude endearing. But as the state now argues in its lawsuit — and as Arthur found out — there may be a reason for that.
Her own review was scathing, she told RTV. "I was honest; I wanted people to know."
The next month, she got a letter from a man named Andrew Szakaly. The state's lawsuit says he described himself as the hotel's attorney, when he was in fact its owner and operator. The letter claimed that Arthur's review was false and had caused "irreparable injury" to the Abbey, and it said that Szakaly would sue for libel unless Arthur took it down.
"That scared me to death," Arthur told RTV. So she deleted the review. She said she checked her bank statement a few days later and found that the hotel had charged her an extra US$350 $500 anyway.
That punishment was laid out in the policy document that the state says no one showed to Arthur: "Guests agree that if guests find any problems with our accommodations, and fail to provide us the opportunity to address those problems while the guest is with us, and/or refuses our exclusive remedy, but then disparages us in any public manner, we will be entitled to charge their credit card."
And that's why, after Arthur wrote to the attorney general's office asking for help getting her US$350 back, the state is now suing.
The man behind the Abbey
Claiming that the Abbey's owner deceived Arthur, the state is seeking more than US$5000 damages from Szakaly and an injunction that would prevent the Abbey from "oppressively one-sided or harsh" rules.
Szakaly told the Washington Post that he's owned the hotel for nearly two decades and had good reason for a policy the state calls harsh. "Several years ago the inn began to experience what has become known in the hospitality industry as 'social media blackmail'," Szakaly wrote. "A guest would complete their stay, leave without making any complaints, then later demand a refund or they would post negative comments regarding the inn on social media."
He called Arthur a "disgruntled guest" who had failed to raise any complaints during her stay, though he did not address her claim that she could find no one to raise them with.
Szakaly also noted that the $350 punishment policy ended several months after Arthur's stay. Since then, a new manager has been operating the hotel and plans to eventually buy it.
The new manager is Amanda Sweet, who answered the phone right away when the Washington Post called. Sweet said she and her husband had been working for a year to fix up the place.
Guests were no longer punished for complaining, she said. "We want to know what we did right and what we did wrong."
But she acknowledged there was only so much that could be done about some of the Abbey's peculiarities — the swarms of ladybugs, for example, or the sulphur-smelling creek that some guests might mistake for sewage.
As for the unstaffed lobby, she said, it's now a feature of the hotel. There's no front desk at all anymore. Guests get a key code to check in and can text housekeeping if they need anything.
The guests "don't want to see anyone", Sweet said. "They want to enjoy each other's company."