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State: Soaring Paws rescue pilot lied to donors, misused funds

A December 2105 post on Twitter by Albert Lonzo Adams III directs donors to soaringpaws.com. Adams now faces seven felony charges in connection with his Tampa animal rescue charity and turned himself in at the Hillsborough County Jail on Thursday. [Facebook]
Published Dec. 27, 2017

TAMPA — For years, animal rescue pilot Albert Lonzo Adams III solicited contributions to his Tampa charity Soaring Paws, enlisting the public to help him fly abandoned dogs to new homes all over the southeastern United States. He even asked for help buying an airplane.

But he lied to get people's money and then misused some of the $140,000 he collected, spending it on liquor, furniture, restaurant tabs, his mortgage and credit card bills, a state investigator concluded in a criminal report.

Adams, 47, turned himself in Thursday at the Hillsborough County Jail to face seven felony charges relating to his operation of Soaring Paws. He was released about 90 minutes later after posting $14,000 bail, according to jail records.

"Soaring Paws Inc., through Albert Adams, has used various means, particularly through social media, to solicit donations while making misrepresentations or misleading statements to the public in order to gain said donations," wrote state criminal investigator Randall Jones of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The agency launched a criminal investigation in April 2016 after the Tampa Bay Times published a series of articles that raised questions about the way Soaring Paws operated. The arrest affidavit cites many of the topics raised by the Times' reporting. Jones subpoenaed charity and personal bank records and combed through hundreds of pages of Adams' financial transactions.

TAMPA BAY TIMES INVESTIGATION: SOARING PAWS

Hero in the sky, pet rescue pilot had troubles on the ground (March 7, 2016)

Tampa pet charity's often repeated claim of a deep-pocketed benefactor raises questions (March 19, 2016)

State ratchets up probe of Tampa's Soaring Paws charity, says pilot not cooperating (March 25, 2016)

Coveted airplane in Tampa pet charity's GoFundMe campaign wasn't even for sale (March 29, 2016)

Tampa-based pet flight charity now focus of criminal investigation, state says (April 23, 2016)

Adams said late Thursday he expects the charges, currently all third-degree felonies, to be dropped. He characterized them as little more than paperwork problems.

"It was just a simple clerical error and we will take the steps needed to prove that all we wanted to do and all we ever did was help animals in kill shelters make it to forever homes," he said.

One count charges Adams with failing to use solicited money for its stated purpose. Another alleges that he obtained contributions by fraud while advertising on social media that Soaring Paws had found an airplane to buy. He told followers he had negotiated a purchase price and showed them a photo of a single-engine Piper with the tail number N32381. The plane's Connecticut owner told the Times in March 2016 that the plane wasn't for sale and he had never heard of Adams.

"The charity solicited contributions and led contributors to believe their contributions would be matched 100 percent, but that didn't happen," the state investigator wrote. "The owner of the airplane was identified and interviewed; he has never spoken to Albert Adams or a representative of Soaring Paws about selling his plane."

In another count, Adams was charged with falsely claiming sponsorship or endorsement. In January 2016, Soaring Paws claimed it was seeking contributions at the request of the Make-a-Wish Foundation. The organization told the Times last year that it had no association with Adams.

Some of the charges stem from his dealings with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which oversees charities in Florida. Jones alleges that Adams provided false financial information by claiming Soaring Paws took in less than $25,000 a year. But in one year alone, it collected more than $86,000. And then, with the charity under investigation, he did not surrender records as required by law.

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 back 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.

He had also served time in federal prison. 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.

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

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