ZEPHYRHILLS — For months, Ed Franco and members of his company, Turin Aviation Group, promoted their restoration of a World War II plane.
They appeared in television reports and in a Jan. 14 Tampa Bay Times story, saying they wanted to fly the 1943 Douglas C-47 overseas for a D-Day re-enactment. The company was soliciting donations, and Franco said they were seeking sponsorships.
A Turin administrator told the Times that the plane had been donated by Wings of Dreams Aviation Museum, from Bradford County. Franco said he would help pilot it for the D-Day trip.
But the Times has learned that the C-47 is at the center of a custody battle between the museum and Turin, that Franco isn't certified to fly the plane and that the plane hasn't been deemed airworthy by the Federal Aviation Administration.
And, as Turin was asking for money, the company owed three of its workers more than $52,000 in back pay and owed a local airport more than $75,000 for unpaid rent and additional charges, according to court rulings. As recently as Friday, deputies have seized planes from Turin that they’ll sell to pay the debt.
When asked to respond, Franco blamed the museum for problems repairing the plane. He said last week that he believes his company will make it to the D-Day event. He said the plane will be certified and that he's lining up others to help fly it. He also said he’s considering legal action against his former employees.
Robert Oehl, director of the museum, said the restoration work by Turin has been done poorly and may have damaged the C-47, along with a Vietnam-era plane that was part of a transfer agreement for the older plane.
"Should Turin fail," Oehl said, "what kind of a mess are we stuck with?"
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Turin agreed in October 2017 to repair and restore a 1965 Cessna 337 Skymaster owned by Wings of Dreams, according to a copy of the notarized document.
In exchange, Wings of Dreams agreed to transfer ownership of its C-47 to Turin. The company also would restore that plane to federal standards, according to the document, and let the museum use it for events. The company estimated the restoration would cost $254,000.
Wings of Dreams agreed to sign over the C-47 within 10 days after Turin's affiliated nonprofit obtained a 501(c)(3) registration, the document said.
The tax-exempt status was approved in December 2017, according to federal records. But Wings of Dreams has yet to transfer the title.
Because little work had been done on the Cessna by last summer, Oehl said, and what had been done looked substandard and out of federal compliance.
Oehl believed that Turin had violated the agreement.
He said he went to Zephyrhills Municipal Airport, where Turin was keeping the planes, towed the two aircraft to a different spot and chained them down.
On July 30 and again on July 31, Oehl called the Zephyrhills Police Department and said that Franco had cut the chains and was moving the planes back, police reports show. Officers deemed it a civil matter and took no action, according to the reports.
Over the next two days, Turin claimed a $241,782.91 lien on the C-47 and a $31,927.67 lien on the Cessna, according to Pasco County records.
When a maintenance shop files a lien like that, it holds the disputed property unless the other party pays up or a court orders otherwise, said Ronald D. Golden, deputy general counsel of the national Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
Franco told the Times that his team stopped working on the Cessna because Oehl hadn't provided promised parts and hadn't signed over the C-47.
The transfer agreement says that the museum will pay for "required parts" for the Cessna after annual inspections. It's not clear that those parts relate to the restoration.
The planes remain with Turin. Oehl said he is considering legal action.
In July 2018, three men sued Turin and Franco in federal court over unpaid wages and fraudulent tax practices, records show.
The men — John Scotello, Benjamin Brooks and Aaron Poidevin — declined to comment, citing their lawyer's advice, and so did their lawyer, Brandon J. Hill of Tampa.
Neither Turin nor Franco responded to the suit, records show. So in September, the three were awarded a default judgment for more than $52,000 total.
Franco said he didn't know about that lawsuit until a Times reporter asked him about it in January.
However, court records show that the suit was served on Aug. 4, 2018, to his wife, at a Brandon address listed as Franco's in public documents. The suit also was served to Turin in the care of a Miami law firm on July 31, records show.
"We get a lot of mail," Franco said.
Franco criticized the trio's work performance and accused two of them of trying to sell Turin's intellectual property. He said the three weren’t even Turin employees, but worked for a third-party company.
"There's no way in hell those guys played any straight cards on me," Franco said.
Other former Turin employees said Franco owed them money, but they declined to comment further.
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Two local airports had trouble getting Turin to pay its bills, records and interviews show.
In October 2017, Skyport Holdings Tampa notified the company it had failed to pay its security deposit of about $8,600 and about $10,450 in rent, according to court documents. Skyport runs Tampa Executive and had subleased a hangar to Turin.
Turin paid the back rent, but not the deposit, court records show. Skyport terminated the lease and told Turin to leave the property.
Turin refused, Skyport claimed, which prompted a lawsuit in November 2017.
In October 2018, a state court judge ordered Turin to pay more than $75,000 to Skyport. But Turin didn't pay, records show, so the court ordered the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office to seize and auction one of Franco's planes, a 1948 North American T-28.
That plane netted only $1,600 in a January auction, so the court ordered the Pasco County Sheriff's Office to seize three more Turin planes, records show. Deputies pulled up to Turin's hangar in Zephyrhills on Friday, took the planes and locked them in another hangar. An auction is scheduled for April.
Franco said Skyport evicted and sued him in retaliation for reporting drug crimes at Tampa Executive.
“We owed them nothing,” Franco said.
The airport's manager, Andy Ochalek, denied the claims of retaliation.
Early in 2018, Turin moved its restoration work to the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport, said its manager Nathan Coleman. Airport documents show that Turin lagged on payments for much of 2018, falling behind on fuel bills, taxes and rent. At one point, the city gave the company a five-day notice to leave.
"We were constantly trying to chase our money," Coleman said.
As of February, Turin had paid its bills, Coleman said, but the battle between Oehl and Franco has hurt the airport.
"It's been a nightmare," Coleman said.
Franco disputed his statements.
"We've made every single lease payment," Franco said, adding later, "We've never had fuel on credit, ever."
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Franco said that he and his company have been wronged at every turn. He said it's because he lets his guard down.
"It leaves me open to a lot of extortion," he said.
Franco said he believes his group will make it to the D-Day event in June, Daks Over Normandy, which coincides with the 75th anniversary of the WWII operation. “Dak” is a nickname for the C-47.
Eric Zipkin, the organization's U.S. coordinator, said he is having only casual contact with participants until they arrive in Europe. He said he didn't know about Turin's situation, but hopes it can be resolved amicably.
Franco told the Times that he expects the C-47’s airworthiness inspection to happen in March.
He also said he’ll soon get his rating to fly the plane. For now, Franco is certified to fly single- and multi-engine planes, according to federal records, but not the C-47. If the plane flies to Europe, Franco said he will enlist others to pilot or copilot the plane.
Last week, Franco said the trip will cost Turin at least $225,000, which he’ll cover. He said his team no longer is asking the public for donations.
But up until Tuesday, before Turin’s sleek web page for the C-47 project disappeared, it prominently displayed a donation button.
"Donate Today via PayPal!" it said. "Keep Us Flying!"
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Justin Trombly at [email protected] Follow @JustinTrombly.