In a TikTok video posted July 27, Matt Sowash wears a “My Life Was a Fiasco Without Jesus” T-shirt, stands beside a half-built tiny home and makes his sales pitch.
“If you’re looking for a 24-footer in the next couple of weeks, I’ve got it!” he tells his 77,000 followers.
Six days later, another video from the same account: “We’ve got your new tiny home ready and waiting!” And again two weeks later: “We’ve got a tiny home for you!”
But customers of Holy Ground Tiny Homes say it does not have a tiny home for you. It doesn’t even have a tiny home for them. And they’ve paid tens of thousands of dollars.
The Englewood nonprofit and its owner Sowash — a convicted fraudster who was once the intended target of a bungled murder plot involving rattlesnakes — have taken their money, lied repeatedly about when their homes will be built, and refused to issue refunds, according to seven customers who spoke to BusinessDen and three others suing Holy Ground.
“He took my money knowing, ‘I’m not going to give this woman a house anytime soon, if ever.’ There’s no doubt about that now,” said Lori Birckhead, a Tennessee woman who took out a loan and wired $46,500 to Holy Ground in April for a home she was promised would arrive in July. She has since been told it will be delivered in 27 to 30 months.
Another customer’s lawsuit estimates “hundreds of consumers throughout Colorado and the United States have wired their life savings” to Holy Ground for tiny homes they didn’t receive. Some have waited 18 months for a house they were promised would arrive in three months.
As word has trickled out — the Better Business Bureau now gives Holy Ground an F rating — and customers across the country have organized online, Sowash has tried to quiet criticisms by warning that complaints and bad reviews will make matters even worse for clients.
In an interview, Sowash acknowledged that some customers have waited a long time for their houses and some will have to wait a long time still. It is all part of what he called “a constant juggling act to get us out of the situation that we got ourselves into.”
“I can’t help what has happened,” Sowash said of the past 18 months. “I take full responsibility for any time length, no matter what the situation. What I’m trying to convey to you is that we care about these people more than anyone can ever really imagine.”
“Out of the Wild West”
In 2006, Sowash co-founded a free amateur poker league in Denver — cashing in on a game that was exploding in popularity. After straddling a legal line for a while, by 2007 there were law enforcement investigations, a failed Las Vegas tournament and angry investors.
As police scrutinized the league’s gambling, they discovered something darker: Herb Beck, a bitter investor, and Christopher Steelman, a private investigator he’d hired, planned to kill Sowash by building a box, filling it with poisonous rattlesnakes, kidnapping him, forcing his legs into the box until the snakes bit him, taking him to a hiking trail and leaving him to die.
“It’s a story out of the Wild West,” a spokesman for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation said at the time. “There’s poker, rattlesnakes and unsavory characters. The only thing I haven’t heard is someone calling another guy a varmint.”
Beck and Steelman each pleaded guilty to one count of extortion and were sentenced to probation. Sowash, then 34, pleaded guilty to felony theft for bilking investors out of $470,000 and was sentenced to five years in prison. He served less than two.
While in prison, Sowash converted to Christianity. In 2019, he says, God whispered to him during a moment of frustration and doubt: “Matt, build a tiny house.”
Holy Ground Tiny Homes was born. In July 2020, the Internal Revenue Service determined it was a charity exempt from federal taxes, records show. By the next year, marketing led to a flurry of orders, Sowash said. Too many. After the cost of construction materials soared last year, Holy Ground raised prices but still built about 100 homes at a loss of $1 million, Sowash claims.
Others weren’t built at all.
Theresa Meggitt, of Lakewood, says she ordered hers in February 2021, sent a down payment of $14,000 and was told to expect it in July 2021. She liked Holy Ground’s low prices and Christian message but now believes both were lies. She hasn’t received the home.
Robyn and Mark Bellamy, who live in Oregon, each bought a Holy Ground house that spring. She wired $48,000 in March 2021 with assurances it would be finished that July; he sent $22,000 for a house he was told to expect in October, according to their June 6 lawsuit in Arapahoe County District Court. Neither received a house or refund.
After meeting Sowash at a Denver home show in October, Timarie Bashor’s 16-year-old daughter took out a personal loan and put $14,000 down on a Holy Ground home. The Northern Colorado mother and daughter were, like others, initially impressed.
“Their prices were a whole lot less than other companies. That was the biggest reason. And I liked that it was a nonprofit. I believed in what they said,” Bashor said.
That late spring day when the home was supposed to arrive has come and gone. So, too, has a second deadline in July. Bashor has asked for a refund but knows not to expect one.
“He has everyone afraid”
Through it all, Sowash has never stopped selling houses. Because he can’t.
“If I only built those older homes,” he said of homes ordered in 2021, “we’d be out of business in a month because we don’t have any money.” Holy Ground uses new money to finish old orders.
“There is no way he can keep going like he is,” customer Cory Anderson said of Sowash.
Anderson considers himself one of the lucky ones. The Utah man wired $34,500 to Holy Ground in March, despite misgivings about a too-good-to-be-true price, and was told to expect his house in July. “The second the wire transfer went across, I had this sinking feeling.”
Eventually, he says, he was able to get a refund. “(Sowash) was patting himself on the back left and right because he finally made good on something and all the while I’m thinking, ‘This is awful, he just sent me a bunch of people’s down payments to get me off his back.’ ”
Clara Davis, a 24-year-old teacher in upstate New York, was told early this year that she would receive free shipping by Aug. 1 if she paid for her tiny home in full. So, she wired her life savings, more than $42,000, to Holy Ground, according to a federal lawsuit she filed Aug. 12. Like others, Davis never received a house or a refund. The lawsuit is pending.
Birckhead, the Tennessee woman who has been told to wait 27-30 months for her house, operates a nonprofit farm where she grows food for Nashville-area food banks. The tiny home isn’t for her, it’s for a young homeless woman who works on her farm.
“It makes you feel really ridiculous. You think, how did a halfway intelligent person — how did I do this? But I really wanted this tiny house for this poor girl,” Birckhead said.
Disheartened Holy Ground customers say they have sought help from police, prosecutors, attorneys, private investigators, the BBB and the IRS, with little success so far. Sowash, by his own admission, has told them that posting negative reviews or filing complaints will only make their situations worse by restricting the cash flow he needs to build their orders.
“Somebody reached out to me and said, ‘Please shut up because if this guy goes out of business, we all lose our money,’ ” Anderson recalled. “He has everyone afraid that if these reviews gain any traction then it is going to shut him down.”
Sowash insists that customers are happy with the product.
“Every bad review you’ll see on BBB is all about timeframe. It’s not about quality of construction. People love our homes, when they get them. I mean, we build a great home.”
Holy Ground is operating on a financial treadmill it can’t step off of, a precarious position that requires it to take orders it likely won’t fulfill soon.
And its biggest gamble is yet to come: a planned 54-unit tiny home village at 5030 York St. in the Elyria Swansea neighborhood. Sowash said he “believes in his heart” the village is a blessing from God that will fix Holy Ground’s finances.
“I’m praying, brother, that this is the time that we will be able to do the things that we need to be able to do to really get out of the hole, get people caught up and either refund their money or build them a house, whichever they want, and move forward,” he said.
At the center of it all — Holy Ground’s past, its future and its failures — sits Sowash. In 2007, a former employee of his failed poker league described Sowash as “a convincing salesman” who could “look at people with his big blue eyes, tell them ‘I don’t lie,’ and they believed him.”
In the eyes of angry Holy Ground customers, Sowash is a fraud who will never change his stripes. In his own eyes, he says, he is a reformed man carrying out the whispered wishes of God.
“I don’t sleep well, brother. I really don’t,” he said. “Because my compassion is for these people. I don’t make any money. I live in the back of one of my car garages. I don’t have a house. I don’t have a home. That’s where I live. I don’t draw a salary.
“So, it’s not like I’m doing this for the money.”