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Coveted airplane in Tampa pet charity's GoFundMe campaign wasn't even for sale

TAMPA — Tail number N32381 belongs to a blue-and-white, fixed-wing Piper Cherokee 6.

Albert Adams has kept its picture on the Internet since Sept. 30 as he has sought donations of $130,000 to buy a plane for his pet rescue charity, Soaring Paws.

"This is going to be the plane that represents all of you," he said in a Facebook post Nov. 15 above a picture of the aircraft.

Most surprised by that plan? Owner John Fritz of Connecticut, who bought the Cherokee on Oct. 6 and said it isn't for sale.

On Monday, Fritz joined Soaring Paws Exposed, a Facebook community of people intent on scrutinizing Adams and Soaring Paws — a small charity with a social media following across the United States and in Canada.

At the heart of the conflict is his campaign to buy an airplane, which was suspended from the crowd-funding site GoFundMe last week after at least one donor asked for her money back.

It's unclear how much Adams has collected. GoFundMe stopped at $12,515, but he also solicits through his website.

He wrote at least once that he was just $30,000 short of the $130,000 goal.

But in an e-mail Monday, he wrote, "We have NEVER posted that we raised $100k. We have a contributor willing to pay for half the plane if our supporters raised the other half."

In various posts, he has written each of these things: an unnamed retired ballplayer paid half in cash, paid half in a check or agreed to eventually pay half to the seller, to help Soaring Paws avoid extra reporting to the IRS.

The Tampa Bay Times asked Adams to provide revenue and flight records — admittedly, more than the law requires — to clear up confusion. He declined.

His IRS 990-N postcards contain only an assertion that he takes in less than $50,000 annually.

The Times contacted Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in February after learning that Adams, a felon with a history of state and federal fraud convictions, had solicited donations for two years without registering.

He registered. He would have been barred from doing so a year ago because one fraud felony was less than 10 years old.

Once he registered, the Times discovered inconsistencies between his state revenue declaration and amounts he self-reported to GuideStar, which collects data on nonprofits.

In response, the state wrote Adams a letter March 2 asking for financial records. The Times obtained the letter. Department press secretary Aaron Keller said Adams did not cooperate and the case was referred to law enforcement investigators. On Facebook, Adams denies a lack of cooperation and said he wasn't approached until last week.

Adams said Monday that the airplane photo he used in his solicitations — which clearly showed a tail number — was just for representation purposes.

"That was just a picture of a Cherokee 6 so people could understand what we were describing," he said.

Both Fritz and the man who sold him the plane said they had no dealings with Adams.

"I had not heard of him until this morning," said Fritz, 53, who owns a communications company in Hartford.

Fritz got a call Monday from North Carolina pilot John Farthing, who once supported Soaring Paws. Farthing, disillusioned with the charity, wanted to know if Adams was trying to buy the pictured airplane. Fritz said no.

Farthing wasn't satisfied by Adams' explanation to the Times.

"The thing is — if you look at the posts he published with the picture of the plane — he (Adams) said, 'This is the plane.' Over and over. 'This is the plane we're going to buy.' "

Farthing, 63, recalls Adams warning potential donors that the seller was putting off another buyer because he wanted to sell to Soaring Paws.

That didn't happen with the plane in the photo, according to seller Matt Kozub of Aircraft Sales Inc., who recalls only Fritz.

"I sold John that airplane a long time ago," Kozub said. "I do not recall talking to anybody or holding that plane off the market for anybody."

Adams said Monday he really did receive an extension from the seller of an airplane he had made an offer to buy. But he declined to identify the seller or the airplane.

Contact Patty Ryan at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

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