Photographs of Steve Wiemeler's wedding don't make him happy.
He's still happily married to his wife, Retno, and has nothing but fond memories of his wedding day in November 2006. It's just that those pictures remind him of the $6,200 he spent on a wedding photographer he claims didn't follow through on his end of the deal.
"After months went by and we hadn't heard from him, we went back into our phone bills and called every number we didn't recognize until we found a cell phone that belonged to him," said Wiemeler, a Westmont native now living in Florida. "We were doing some serious hunting."
Now, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office likewise is hunting the photographer, filing a consumer fraud lawsuit in Cook County on behalf of several Chicago-area couples.
Eventually, Wiemeler caught up with photographer Orlando Copeland after staking out his Darien house. Wiemeler said Copeland said he was sick with a disease that defied diagnosis and that he'd been too ill to complete the package Wiemeler had paid for.
Unknown to Wiemeler, Copeland was telling the same thing to more than a dozen other clients.
"He can't perform because he's sick and he's admitted the money we gave him is gone," said Lisa Nardiello, who hired Copeland to shoot her June wedding.
Instead of all the bells and whistles she and her husband, Matthew, were promised for the $4,000 they spent, the Lake Zurich couple received DVDs with all the images from their wedding day and a promise of the rest to come.
Thaddeus and Michelle Halm of Brookfield got the same story and DVD package, as did the Wiemelers.
That might not seem like a horrible deal, but there's an important hitch.
"Without a copyright release from the photographer, we can't print the images," said Rich Tranchida, executive vice president for photo finishing for the Maryland-based Ritz Camera Centers. "As much as we'd like to be nice guys, it can't be done legally."
Wiemeler said he learned of the copyright issue when he tried taking the DVD to Walgreens for reproduction.
"They're useless to me," he said.
Part of the attorney general's lawsuit asks a judge to nullify the couples' contract with Copeland Photography Inc. and indemnify photo reproducers from copyright violations.
"It's just so frustrating," Michelle Halm said. "We were supposed to have it so that you could order from their Web site, but there's nothing but the DVDs."
Her husband had done the research on wedding photographers and recommended they go with Copeland. He feels guilty about the decision.
"Part of me feels responsible," Thaddeus Halm said. "I've been suckered, and that's the biggest thing. I did a lot of homework and checked with the Better Business Bureau, and yeah, it really makes you feel terrible."
Lisa Nardiello's best friend recommended Copeland to her. And while the friends are still close, the subject of wedding photographers is verboten when they get together.
"She still believes he's sick," said Nardiello, a teacher in Barrington. "As far as I know she hasn't gotten her pictures from him either, but I haven't broached the subject because I don't want to stir it up."
There's now an online group devoted to outraged Copeland clients. At least 15 complaints have been made to the Illinois Better Business Bureau since 2006 and another dozen to Madigan's office, officials there said.
Attempts to contact Copeland were unsuccessful. An elderly woman identifying herself as his mother-in-law answered the door at his Darien home. She said he wasn't home and that he comes and goes. She said that he was sick, but answered "I don't know" when asked what malady he suffered from. She didn't know when he'd be home and added that her son-in-law was no longer taking pictures at weddings.
Natalie Bauer, a spokeswoman at Madigan's office, said Copeland had been served the court papers notifying him of the lawsuit and has until March 15 to respond. Otherwise, a judge could give a decision against him, she said.
"This was supposed to be one of the best days of our lives," Michelle Halm said. "Every time I look at those pictures, the only thing I'm reminded of is this ongoing legal drama."