Hero in the sky animal rescue pilot got into trouble on the ground

TAMPA – Wallets were opened when a Tampa pilot’s charity claimed to be responding to a request from Make-A-Wish to fly a sick boy named Brian on a rescue mission from 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 his name.

Adams, 45, is the top dog for Soaring Paws, a nonprofit that transports stray pets from crowded Southern shelters to small rescue groups in towns where the animals are wanted.

Strangers donate money so he can rent planes for $200 an hour. Lately, he’s been collecting to buy a plane, a 1978 Piper Cherokee 6, at a cost of $130,000.

Flights, more or less weekly, win friends.

“He’s awesome,” said Tiffany Howington of the Troy Animal Rescue Project in Alabama. “I had some injured dogs that I needed to get to Tampa, and I texted him in the middle of the night.”

Still, skeptics — including a woman who started a Soaring Paws Exposed page on Facebook — have raised questions about the stories Soaring Paws tells to tug at heartstrings.

First there was an announcement that two boxers were beaten with baseball bats, their 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 bounds, but where did it end up?

“That’s the $2,200 question,” noted another poster on Facebook, calling itself the National Pet Rescue Examiner.

And suspicions about the Make-A-Wish tale – which mentioned a child’s first name, illness and age – led a woman to report Soaring Paws to the children’s charity.

Lisa Andrews, regional director of Make-A-Wish, said the organization has no relationship with Adams.

“That’s not how you get wishes,” she said.

• • •

Soaring Paws are all over social media, soliciting money through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, GoFundMe, SoaringPaws.com, Booster.com, Generosity.com and Amazon Smile.

Best known is a national organization, Pilots N Paws, whose volunteers cover their own flight costs and then deduct a portion using its tax-exempt status. Adams was once one of them, before going on his own.

From the start, the Soaring Paws Facebook page was filled with images of new rescues.

Now there are updates on the airplane campaign, ads for Soaring Paws T-shirts and endless photos of a boxer pup, Phoenix, recently adopted by Adams and his wife.

Hypnotized by kindness, few complain.

“When I get up in the morning, the first thing I do is check for stories from Albert,” said donor Anita Forde of St. Louis Park, Minn. “I do the same before going to bed at night.”

Weekends bring announcements from sponsors, often anonymous, waiting to match donations.

Adams reports that a retired professional baseball player has agreed to pay for half the plane if the charity can raise the other half. He said a few days ago that he was $30,000 short. He never names the ball player. The request could not be verified when the Tampa Bay Weather checked with a few top 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’s coming through the Soaring Paws website, or Adams’ home address, recently listed for direct contributions.

Adams said he didn’t take a penny of salary. He said his books were “100% open”. But he did not respond to requests to see them and eventually stopped responding to requests from a reporter.

“Saving animal lives comes before chatting with a reporter who clearly has an agenda against a group of kind-hearted pilots who are doing their best to help,” he said in his last email.

He solicited donations for at least two years before registering his charity in Florida. He finally did so on February 16, after the Times checked its status, triggering a status call.

When signing up, he said Soaring Paws made less than $25,000 last year, which allowed him to join for free.

Soaring Paws reported twice that amount — $49,400 — to GuideStar. Detailed IRS accounting is required for charities raising more than $50,000.

• • •

If Adams had registered Soaring Paws as a Florida charity when it was incorporated in 2014, he would have had to disclose three state felony convictions dating back less than 10 years.

They were from 2005. One involved obtaining narcotics by calling a pharmacy with fake orders from a doctor’s office. Two others concerned identity theft and credit card fraud.

“You are not permitted to solicit contributions with a financial crime or fraud-related conviction within the past 10 years,” said Aaron Keller, spokesman for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services of Florida.

In his interview with the Times, Adams has denied anything other than a bar fight 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 electronics, including GPS equipment for airplanes, records show.

The judge added an additional six months in 2003, sending Adams back to jail after learning he had provided false reports about his community service hours.

A psychiatrist who examined him at the request of a public defender attributed the expenses to bipolar disorder, according to Adam’s federal filing.

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 their marriage, they jointly filed for bankruptcy, giving up more than $110,000 in unsecured debt.

Sharma Adams, who has no criminal record, was a nurse practitioner at Tampa General Hospital and has since become disabled.

The August 2009 bankruptcy petition listed Albert Adams’ monthly earnings from his pool service as $170. His wife won $4,472.

In October, Jane Flaherty of South Tampa went online shopping for a swimming pool maintenance company and found Albert Adams Pool Service.

She agreed to an annual cost of $1,300, but called the police after her credit card was charged $2,600. Adams didn’t pay back the difference, even after saying he would, and didn’t show up to do the job, she reported.

A prosecutor said it was a civil matter. No charges have been filed.

When Flaherty’s husband wrote a bad pool service review, he received an email – calling his wife ‘late’. She told police her husband learned the email was from Adams’ IP address.

Likewise, those who have challenged Adams publicly about Soaring Paws have learned that he sometimes hits back online.

“What a sad existence you live,” Adams wrote to a woman who questioned the authenticity of a YouTube video he posted.

“Hanging out on the internet while nobody cares about you.”

• • •

All of this is a far cry from the land of flying puppies, where Adams benefits from doubt, and more.

Several relief groups told the Times he helped them, from twice a month to twice a year.

“Clark Kent isn’t really Superman,” longtime boxing lifeguard Lori Walker wrote in a testimonial on SoaringPaws.com.

“The real name of the superhero is Albert Adams. And Wonder Woman? It’s Sharma Adams.

People at Peter O. Knight Airport, where the pilot is renting the plane, see the dogs landing on flights from Alabama or Georgia.

That’s all the proof some people need.

Forde, the donor following the Minnesota charity, was surprised to learn about Adams’ past, but he may think he belongs there.

“Anyone can make a mistake in life, and if they did, it’s 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 protected]

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