TAMPA — Wallets opened when a Tampa pilot's charity claimed to be answering a request from Make-A-Wish to fly a sick boy named Brian on a mission to rescue shelter pets.
But Make-A-Wish says it never asked and last month told pilot Albert Lonzo Adams III, who has a history of fraud convictions, to stop using its name.
Adams, 45, is top dog at Soaring Paws, a nonprofit that flies stray pets from overcrowded Southern shelters to small rescue groups in cities where the animals are wanted.
Strangers donate money so he can rent airplanes for $200 an hour. Lately, he's been collecting to buy a plane, a 1978 Piper Cherokee 6, at a cost of $130,000.
The flights, more or less weekly, win friends.
"He's awesome," said Tiffany Howington of the Troy Animal Rescue Project in Alabama. "I've had dogs with injuries that I needed to get down to Tampa, and I have texted him in the middle of night."
Yet skeptics — including a woman who started a Soaring Paws Exposed page on Facebook — have raised questions about the stories Soaring Paws tells to pull heart strings.
First there was a posting that two boxers were beaten with baseball bats, legs broken, for knocking over a Christmas tree. Soaring Paws solicited $2,200 from donors for what was described as a 10-hour flight.
Cruelty knows few limits, but where had it happened?
"That's the $2,200 question," noted another Facebook poster, calling herself the National Pet Rescue Examiner.
And suspicion about the Make- A-Wish tale — which listed the first name, disease and age of a child — led a woman to report Soaring Paws to the children's charity.
Lisa Andrews, regional director for Make-A-Wish, said the organization has no relationship with Adams.
"That's not how we grant wishes," she said.
• • •
Soaring Paws is all over social media, soliciting money through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, GoFundMe, SoaringPaws.com, Booster.com, Generosity.com and Amazon Smile.
Better known is a national organization, Pilots N Paws, whose volunteers cover their own flight expenses and then deduct a portion using its tax-exempt status. Adams was once one of them, before setting off on his own.
Early on, the Soaring Paws Facebook page was filled with images of fresh rescues.
Now there are updates on the airplane campaign, ads for Soaring Paws T-shirts and endless photos of a boxer puppy, Phoenix, recently adopted by Adams and his wife.
Hypnotized by cuteness, few complain.
"When I get up in the morning, the first thing I do is check to see if I have any stories from Albert," said donor Anita Forde of St. Louis Park, Minn. "I do the same before I go to bed at night."
Weekends bring announcements of sponsors, often unnamed, waiting to match donations.
Adams reports that a retired professional baseball player agreed to pay for half of the plane if the charity can raise the other half. He said days ago that he's $30,000 short. He never names the ballplayer. The claim couldn't be verified when the Tampa Bay Times checked with a couple of high profile athletes who fit the description.
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A campaign on GoFundMe shows less than $14,000 raised, but the public can't see what comes in through the Soaring Paws website, or to Adams' home address, recently listed for direct contributions.
Adams said he doesn't take a penny of pay. He said his books are "100 percent open." But he didn't respond to requests to view them, and ultimately stopped answering a reporter's inquiries.
"Saving animal lives comes before chatting with a reporter who clearly has some agenda against a group of good-hearted pilots doing their best to help," he said in his last e-mail.
He solicited donations for at least two years before registering his charity in Florida. He finally did so Feb. 16, after the Times checked on his status, triggering a call from the state.
On the registration, he declared that Soaring Paws took in less than $25,000 last year, which allowed him to register for free.
Soaring Paws reported twice that amount — $49,400 — to GuideStar. A detailed accounting to the IRS is required of charities that collect more than $50,000.
• • •
Had Adams registered Soaring Paws as a Florida charity when he incorporated in 2014, he would have had to disclose three state felony convictions that were less than 10 years old.
They dated to 2005. One was for obtaining narcotics by calling a pharmacy with fake orders from a doctor's office. Two others were for identity fraud and credit card fraud.
"You are not allowed to solicit contributions with a financial or fraud-related felony conviction in the last 10 years," said Aaron Keller, spokesman for Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
In his interview with the Times, Adams denied anything more than a bar brawl in his past. But he served time in federal prison, records show.
U.S. District Judge Patricia Fawsett sentenced him to 15 months in 2000 for a $49,146 illegal spending spree that caught the attention of the Secret Service. He used stolen credit card numbers to buy electronic devices, including GPS equipment for airplanes, records state.
The judge tacked on six extra months in 2003, returning Adams to prison after learning that he turned in false reports of his community service hours.
A psychiatrist who examined him at the request of a public defender attributed the spending to bipolar disorder, according to Adam's federal file.
The psychiatrist wrote that Adams had a history of manic episodes that may have led to shopping sprees.
• • •
When he and his wife moved to Tampa from the Orlando area in 2009, five years after getting married, they filed jointly for bankruptcy, abandoning more than $110,000 in unsecured debt.
Sharma Adams, who has no criminal record, was a nurse practitioner at Tampa General Hospital who has since become disabled.
The August 2009 bankruptcy petition stated that Albert Adams' monthly earnings from his swimming pool service were $170. His wife earned $4,472.
That October, Jane Flaherty of South Tampa went online to shop for a pool maintenance company and found the Albert Adams Pool Service.
She agreed to an annual cost of $1,300, but called police after her credit card was charged $2,600. Adams didn't refund the difference, even after he said he would, and didn't show up to do the work, she reported.
A prosecutor said it was a civil matter. No charge was filed.
When Flaherty's husband wrote a bad review of the pool service, he got an e-mail — calling his wife a "retard." She told police her husband learned the e-mail came from Adams' IP address.
Similarly, those who have challenged Adams publicly about Soaring Paws have learned that he sometimes fires back online.
"What a sad existence you live," Adams wrote to a woman who questioned the authenticity of a YouTube video he posted.
"Trolling the Internet while no one cares about you."
• • •
All of that is far removed from the land of flying puppies, where Adams gets the benefit of the doubt, and then some.
Several rescue groups told the Times he has helped them, from twice a month to twice a year.
"Clark Kent is not actually Superman," wrote a longtime boxer rescuer Lori Walker in a testimonial at SoaringPaws.com.
"The superhero's real name is Albert Adams. And Wonder Woman? That's Sharma Adams."
People at Peter O. Knight airport, where the pilot rents the plane, see the dogs landing on flights from Alabama or Georgia.
That's all the proof some need.
Forde, the donor who follows the charity from Minnesota, was surprised to learn about Adams' past, but figures maybe it belongs back there.
"Everybody can make a mistake in life, and if he did, that is really sad," she said. "But I think he deserves a second chance.
"And I think that's what he's doing with Soaring Paws."
Contact Patty Ryan at email@example.com.