TAMPA — In late 2015, a Tampa-based pilot solicited $2,200 to airlift two dogs he said were beaten with a baseball bat for toppling a Christmas tree.
Albert Lonzo Adams III woke up to $5,000 from scores of donors across the country who knew him as the hero behind the charity Soaring Paws.
"Airborne now with 2 abused boxers," he tweeted.
But Adams’ flight records show no sign he was airborne that December day. His over-the-top Christmas tree claim caught the attention of animal activists. Inquiries by the Tampa Bay Times and state regulators found evidence that Adams lied while seeking donations and that some of the approximately $142,000 he collected was not spent on the transport of dogs.
A criminal case ended quietly in Tampa on Wednesday with Adams pleading guilty to five of seven felony counts filed against him in Hillsborough Circuit Court. He was sentenced to 10 years of probation and 50 hours of community service, and he must pay costs and fines totaling $20,856, including $18,000 to benefit two Hillsborough County animal welfare organizations.
Under terms of the plea deal, he can no longer run a charity.
From 2013 until 2016, Soaring Paws received donations from more than 1,400 people across the United States, some coming a few dollars at a time, according to state records. It operated chiefly through a Facebook page that allowed Adams to benefit from the enthusiasm of animal lovers who helped spread his mission and, in the later months, his desire to buy an airplane.
People often saw concrete examples of his work, as he rented planes and flew stray dogs and puppies across the Southeast for rescue groups. The flights were real. But there weren’t enough of them to support Adams’ grandiose claims that every penny collected was spent on flight costs. His fund-raising ran afoul of state laws.
Prosecutor Amy Casanova-Ward told Hillsborough Circuit Judge Mark Wolfe that most donors did not seek restitution and were happy if even one animal was rescued. She said the state found evidence that Adams did help save animals in a high-kill shelter and he put some of his own money into the charity.
"It’s pretty clear that he didn’t set the charity up to be a slush fund," attorney David Knox said later Wednesday. "He didn’t create it to take money under false pretenses. But it’s fair to say the charity got bigger than expected and he was inept or inexperienced as someone running the business."
Donations wound up in a Soaring Paws account that also paid for alcohol, haircuts, flowers, veterinary bills, fast food, spa services, yard work, furniture, Apple products, $10,000 in Amazon purchases and $24,000 to Capital One, according to bank records obtained by the state.
Knox said some of the purchases were flight supplies.
"The way charities are set up, had he not made the representation that all funds would go to the animals, he wouldn’t be facing any charges," Knox said.
The charges that led to guilty pleas accused Adams of failing to apply donations in a manner consistent with solicitation, obtaining charitable contributions by fraud, providing false information to the state, and misrepresenting sponsorship, at one point falsely claiming that he was collecting on behalf of the Make-A-Wish Foundation for a 9-year-old with leukemia.
Adams offered no apologies at the hearing or afterward, when asked by the Times if he had anything to say to donors who may be disappointed. His attorney said he would have no comment.
"I am at peace knowing that he will not be out there soliciting funds for Soaring Paws anymore," said Pamela Davis, a New Jersey woman who was among the first to raise questions. She said she was mocked by Adams on Twitter while researching the charity for her parents, who live in the Tampa Bay area.
Others who sought transparency got a similar response.
The case was investigated by civil and criminal divisions of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which oversees charities. The Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office filed charges in December.
In exchange for Adams’ pleas, the state agreed to drop two charges relating to registration and records retention.
The other five counts each could have been punishable by up to five years in state prison.
Adams has a history of state and federal convictions for fraud-related crimes in Florida, but the prosecutor told the judge those were old crimes and his sentencing score did not suggest incarceration.
He is eligible for termination of his probation after five years if he stays out of trouble, completes his community service and pays the costs and fines.
The beneficiaries? The Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center and the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, each expected to receive $9,000 at a rate of $100 per month.
The prosecutor said it would be a chance for Adams to "pay it forward."