Malena Morris and Jason Davison paid Caleb Williams, a Spokane Valley contractor, $80,000 to build the lifestyle of their dreams by converting the inside of a 30-foot-long school bus.
“We thought we’d have this bus, we’ll travel around the country, then eventually sell it years later and have all these memories like we were kids again,” Morris said. “That was the dream.”
But the couple never drove a mile in their “skoolie.”
They never even got the keys.
The last conversation the two had with Williams and his business partner and wife, Hanah Gross, was in August 2022 when work was scheduled to begin on their bus.
Williams and Gross, who did business as Epic Skoolies, have disconnected their phone numbers, taken down their business website, abandoned their business property, and have reportedly fled the Spokane area.
Family members did not know the exact whereabouts of the couple, other than they were in Southern California.
The Spokesman-Review connected with seven customers of Epic Skoolies who feel they were scammed out of their money – and with it, their dreams of living a life on the road. Together, the customers paid Williams about $500,000.
Those who did get a retrofitted bus to hit the road reported shockingly shoddy work that left them not with a road-ready adventure bus, but a vehicle that needed more work, more time and more money. Some customers who paid Williams aren’t sure if he ever even used their money to find a bus, much less begin work.
“I’m not sure what is real anymore,” Morris said. “I don’t even know if our bus actually existed.”
Until Williams and Gross resurface, customers are left with little recourse.
Some of them took big steps to finance their dreams of taking their busses on the road. Some sold their homes. Others parted ways with their belongings in preparation for the minimalistic lifestyle of a bus-dweller.
Living life in the bus lane
Vehicles in the tight-knit bus-dwelling community can be stunning, but the lifestyle is not exactly glamorous.
A short bus, about 22 feet long, is merely 150 square feet. And a full-length, 40-foot-long bus is 300 square feet.
Charles Kern, who is regarded as an expert on bus conversions, explained the draw of life in a bus.
“You can do what’s called ‘boondocking,’ which is staying for extended periods of time in national forests, next to a lake, or really wherever you want – indefinitely,” Kern said. “A bus has a larger water tank, endless electricity from your solar panels and insulation that is often better than that of a refrigerated semi-truck.”
Plus, a steel-framed bus is a relatively safe residence.
“I mean, they’re designed to haul children,” he said. “I met a guy one time that rolled his bus then lived in it for years after. I don’t condone that, but they’re regulated and safe vehicles all around.”
Kern has spent decades in the industry and founded his own company called Chrome Yellow Corporation in Denver, doing the same kind of work as Epic Skoolies. He has since retired as a builder and works as a consultant, sharing his experience with people around the country.
His work has landed him appearances on television shows such as “Tiny Homes,” “Big Living,” Assembly Required” with Tim Allen and his own pilot show called “Bus Life Ever.”
Kern uses this extensive experience to critique other builders’ work.
“There’s not really building codes or guidelines – it’s really an unregulated industry,” he said. “Anybody can raise their hand and say, ‘I can do that for you,’ and take your money with no credit credentials of any kind.
“This is why I have made it my personal crusade to inform people in the community about builders who are claiming to be professionals but lack the skills. There’s really no other mechanism for enforcement, other than word of mouth.”
Kern often uses his recognition to makes videos reviewing the builds of other bus companies – some good, some very bad.
October of last year, at a televised bus-building event called “Gutted,” Kern observed a bus owned by Stefanie Wenceslao.
She spent $70,000 on renovations to her 22-foot-long “short” bus.
“When I walked up to it, her bus was leaking,” Kern said.
Problems ranged from cosmetic in nature to seriously second-rate work.
“Her build really made me sad, because she couldn’t really be safe in it – let alone live in it,” he said. “I mean, there were things wrong with her bus that could result in the frickin’ thing burning down.”
Unbeknown to Kern, this nearly happened to Jennifer and Jason Gossett, who acquired their bus from Epic Skoolies in July of last year.
Just weeks after driving it off the lot, its battery compartment located under their bed at the back of the bus caught fire.
“The whole bus filled with smoke,” she said. “It was really scary – we had our girls in there.”
Having had kids early on in adulthood, the two felt they had not traveled enough. They have long wanted to catch up on lost time.
Their fervor for adventure hit an all-time high after Jennifer Gossett spent time in the hospital.
So they researched online for builders and found the Epic Skoolies YouTube page.
After paying Williams an undisclosed amount, the two received their bus and now live in it full-time.
But they disapprove of his work.
During their first month of ownership, they spent about $7,000 in maintenance costs.
This included the replacement of batteries and tires that were said to be brand new, she said.
“We really connected with him and his wife, Hanah, and we bought gifts for their child,” she said. “That’s what has been so hard for me – to be so blatantly lied to and taken advantage of.”
Despite feeling swindled, Jennifer Gossett has sympathy for the couple.
“They really both need to go to jail for this, because Hanah was also there for every meeting and every conversation,” she said. “And that’s a terrible thought, and it really saddens me because they have a child. Honestly, I still feel for them both.”
In fact, numerous clients who felt they were wronged by Epic Skoolies share a similar sentiment toward Williams and Gross.
Renee Patten and Donald Renninger contracted Epic Skoolies for a $95,000 renovation of their 40-foot school bus.
The two live in Hanford, California, but their bus currently sits in a Spokane Valley storage facility with all of its seats still in place.
They’re paying the monthly cost of storing the vehicle, and are now making payments on a $40,000 loan intended to finance their bus and renovations.
The two sold their dream home and got rid of many of their belongings including valuable family heirlooms, Patten said.
Renninger said they are living paycheck-to-paycheck, but he’s not angry.
“I don’t believe Caleb and his wife are evil. I always give people the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “I mean, I couldn’t say for certain that he started this endeavor with the idea of scamming people.
“I think it was a legit business. He just got in over his head.”
‘The beginning of this story’
In the contracts signed between Williams and his customers, he claims to be working as a “Washington Contractor.”
But there is no trace of him being registered with the state as a licensed and bonded contractor, according to Debby Abe, communication consultant at the State Department of Labor & Industries.
Contractors registered at their state’s labor office must be bonded, which means that an insurance and bonding company has funds available to clients if they file a claim against their contractor.
Because retrofitting a bus into a rolling home requires the installation of potentially dangerous systems such as electricity and propane, Kern said builders in the industry should take it a step further and be registered as an LLC.
“It’s right there in the name,” he said. “The whole point of a limited liability company is to get insurance to cover my company if something were to happen but also to protect their clients.”
Though Williams was not a bonded contractor and Epic Skoolies was not a registered company, Williams had properly started a company before.
In March 2021, Williams started Skoolie Conversions LLC with Brandon Simmons.
At the time, Williams had retrofitted his own bus and had experience in web design. He reached out to Simmons, who had complimentary experience from years running a construction company.
During their time together, Simmons did much of the carpentry and finishing, and supplied the equipment and shop space. Williams was in charge of electrical and plumbing.
Williams also managed the online identity of the company, posting marketing materials and fielding inquiries.
“We built one bus,” Simmons said.
The two spent 30 days on their first project. Williams took impressive photos and footage, and posted this to YouTube where it garnered widespread attention.
“Tons of people were asking us to build for them,” he said. “But I heard that from him because he dealt with the social media, I could just see the YouTube page growing.”
Then one day Williams told Simmons he was feeling ill and needed the day off.
“I haven’t heard from him since,” Simmons said.
Williams changed the login information to the web pages associated with the operation and called the state to close the business, Simmons said.
“He took everything that we built together,” he said. “I was dead in the water.”
Today, Simmons regards this separation as a blessing and runs his own school bus renovation company, Skoolie Builders LLC, in Puyallup, Washington.
He said he didn’t want to disparage his previous business partner, but felt it was important to share his story because he has spoken with clients of Epic Skoolies.
“I don’t need to talk because I am fine and my company is fine,” he said. “But I know there are people out there who got really hurt.”
“I knew I had to say something,” he said. “I knew I had to share my side, which was the beginning of this story.”
‘The loss of our dream’
All of the clients The Spokesman-Review talked with discovered Epic Skoolies by its impressive YouTube page and had a similar experience with Williams.
At first, he was patient, charismatic and polite. Soon after signing a contract with a client, he grew more distant and harder to reach, they said. This was followed by extensions to the completion date for clients to obtain their bus.
Wenceslao received hers the closest to her contracted deadline.
This is perhaps because she flew from her San Diego home to Spokane and demanded to be given her vehicle. She was contracted to receive her bus in January of 2022 but didn’t acquire it until February.
The Gossetts signed their contract in May of 2021, and the bus was supposed to be done in November. From their Indiana home, they also flew to Spokane and demanded their bus. But they were forced to spend three weeks in the Lilac City as Williams and his crew finished their work.
That was in July 2022. The two received the keys eight months after their contracted completion date.
Patten and Renninger were told they would have their bus in August 2022. In July of this year, some 11 months later, they received a letter and instructions about how to acquire their untouched bus from the Spokane Valley storage facility.
But perhaps none had a worse experience with Epic Skoolies than April Bowler and Lo Cunningham.
The two were interested in living in a bus to facilitate their work as owners of an event company. They travel around the country and put on pop culture conventions, Bowler said.
They purchased a 45-foot-long motor coach, akin to a Greyhound bus, when they were living in Dallas. They hired Epic Skoolies to transport it to Spokane Valley, as they were cheaper than local companies.
Little did they know at the time, this would be the last time the couple would see their bus.
In November 2021, the two signed their first contract with Williams for a $98,800 build.
Though the contract did not outline a specific completion date, he informed the couple that retrofitting projects typically take between two and three months, and because the motor coach was larger than a full-length school bus, it could take an extra month or so, Bowler said.
“I knew it was a small business, so I was accounting for delays and stuff like that,” she said. “But nothing nearly to the extent of what it ended up being.”
After paying $50,000 when they signed the November contract, their next deposit was scheduled to be $30,000 in February 2022.
Between the time of the first and second deposits, the couple had difficulties reaching Williams and had seen no photos of progress being made.
“February was the halfway point in the timeline, so I’m expecting our bus to be about 50% done,” Bowler said. “But I was getting worried because there wasn’t any communication.”
The two refused to pay the second deposit until they saw photos.
This continued until May, when they called Spokane Valley police.
“Only then did we actually receive photos from him,” she said.
The two were skeptical of the photos but informed Williams that they would like to continue working with him.
To do this, Williams required a new contract to be signed, the second deposit be paid and they would be pushed to their last-priority project because of the late payment, Bowler said.
The parties agreed on a second contract in May that said work was to begin in October and be completed in January 2023.
By this time, the two had sold their home, many of their belongings and had moved into Bowler’s parents’ home in Virginia.
“We told my parents, ‘We just have to stick it out until January, then we’ll be out of your hair,’ ” she said.
The two felt guilty for calling the police and relentlessly trying to reach Williams during the first contract, so they eased off this time around.
There was little communication until December, when Williams said he would not meet the completion deadline and began offering refund options.
The parties did not strike a deal, and Williams had the bus towed.
Bowler and Cunningham hired an attorney to try and save their impounded bus, but their efforts failed.
It was sold at auction.
Including the price of the bus, payments to Williams and the cost of their attorney, the two had spent almost $150,000.
“And that’s not even counting conventions we had to cancel or sponsorships we had to scrap,” she said. “Not to mention the loss of our dream.”
The two are still living with Bowler’s parents.
“It may take a lot of hard work, but at the end of the day, we’re going to be OK,” Cunningham said. “We’ve cried our tears.”
But the two have not given up.
“At this point, we’re just trying to wash our hands of it,” Bowler said. “We’ve come to terms that we’re not going to get our money returned – we just want to see him in jail.”
Williams’ previous landlords are planning legal action against him, according to the property management company, RenCorp Realty. He leased shop space at 15215 East Marietta Ave. in Spokane Valley and is behind on about a full year of rental fees, the statement said.
Units on the property cost around $2,400 to rent monthly. This amounts to almost $30,000 in unpaid rent.
But many customers have given up hope because they have nothing left to pay for an attorney.
Some felt embarrassed to have been scammed out of so much cash and are unwilling to spend more on legal fees.
Most were apprehensive to go public, but more than anything, said they don’t want this to happen to anyone else – they want their experience with Williams and Gross to be made public so it doesn’t happen again.
As for Morris, she knows she will not give up.
“If I can thank Caleb for anything, it’s the anger that I feel that is keeping me going,” she said.