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‘I handled all of it,’ Soaring Paws pilot said of bank records in charity probe

TAMPA — The investigators showed up Dec. 5. They had questions for pilot Albert Lonzo Adams III but weren’t scheduled to ask them because his attorney didn’t approve an interview. Instead, they were to question his wife as part of a state inquiry into the couple’s Soaring Paws dog transport charity.

But Albert Adams greeted the lawmen at the door and sat down with them and his wife, Sharma Adams.

As she fielded questions, he chimed in — about 180 times, according to a transcript of the conversation — all without benefit of counsel and despite a reminder to Adams that he wasn’t there to be questioned.

Days later, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services charged him with seven felonies related to the charity. His wife was not charged. Sharma Adams, a disabled nurse practitioner, had tended airborne dogs while Adams flew a rented plane, but he made it clear in the interview that he solicited funds and managed the finances.

"I handled all of it," he said, when his wife was asked about Soaring Paws bank records.

From 2013 to 2016, the charity solicited money to fly stray dogs for rescue groups, collecting at least $142,000 from more than 1,400 people.

The money wound up in a Soaring Paws account that paid for scores of airplane rentals but also covered alcohol, haircuts, flowers, veterinary bills, fast food, spa services, yard work, furniture, Apple products, $6,000 in Florida Blue premiums, $10,000 in Amazon purchases and $24,000 in payments to Capital One, bank records show.

"Me," Adams said, when his wife was asked who completed state paperwork to solicit for Soaring Paws.

The state alleges Adams submitted false information, portraying his charity as small enough to avoid oversight.

He told investigator Randall Jones that revenue never exceeded $50,000 a year and was rarely over $25,000. Jones found a net low of $25,805 and a high of $84,032. State reporting requirements toughen at $25,000.

"I did it," Adams said, when his wife was asked who posted online to solicit donations toward an airplane purchase. The state alleges he enticed donors with phony promises of matching funds. In the end, no airplane was purchased.

"I posted that," he said of an announcement for a Soaring Paws fundraising drive for "the folks at Make-A-Wish" to help a boy with leukemia go on a flight.

Investigator Jones wrote in his report that there was no record of Soaring Paws giving money to Make-A-Wish or taking a sick child Adams called "Brian" on "any of its missions or non-missions." The couple told him parents of "Brian" had misled them.

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)

State: Soaring Paws rescue pilot lied to donors, misused funds (Dec. 21, 2017)

The transcript and investigative report are among thousands of pages amassed by the state and recently made available to Adams’ new defense attorney, David Knox, who took over this year. The case was filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court.

Speaking to Jones and a fellow investigator, both Adams and Sharma Adams repeated the charity’s long-running claim that all money collected for Soaring Paws went to flight costs.

"Our accounting was very simple because everything went to the rescue flights," Adams said. "Nobody got paid."

It was a message conveyed online to Soaring Paws followers.

Donors interviewed by Jones cited it as a reason for giving.

He heard it from Jeni Countryman of Clearwater, from Carla Mueller of Lutz, from Donna McCrocklin of Eustis, from Nancy Lake of Riverview, from Louis Bantis of Melbourne, from Claudia Florez of Rockledge.

"Claudia said Soaring Paws’ Facebook page led her to believe that 100 percent of the donations would be used for the needs of the charity," Jones wrote.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam’s office began investigating in 2016, amid reports about Soaring Paws in the Tampa Bay Times and complaints from consumers.

Jones also talked to several people who had personal knowledge of Adams transporting dogs for rescue groups.

Lori Spaulding said Adams flew about five missions for her rescue group from 2014 to 2016, carrying three to seven dogs each trip.

But Soaring Paws’ website claimed it moved 300 to 500 dogs a month.

Witnesses told the investigator that would not have been possible, based on Adams’ airplane rental history.

As Jones neared the home stretch of his Dec. 5 interview at the couple’s home, Adams said he appreciated that someone was listening to him without assuming he had done something wrong.

An arrest warrant was filed Dec. 19.

Contact Patty Ryan at [email protected]

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