Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary founder won't go to jail - WJBF-TV ABC 6 Augusta-Aiken News, Weather, Sports

Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary founder won't go to jail

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Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary founder and President Ralph Heath. Pinellas Co. Jail booking photo Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary founder and President Ralph Heath. Pinellas Co. Jail booking photo

In a pre-trial deal worked out with Pinellas prosecutors Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary founder and President Ralph Heath won't have a criminal record and won't become a jailbird following his arrest last November for defrauding the state.

Heath faced a felony charge for failing to maintain workers compensation insurance over a period of seven months in 2012 and knowingly violating a stop-work order issued by the state.

State investigators say Heath gave a sworn statement admitting that he knowingly committed the offense. He later told news reporters that he had no idea that he'd done anything wrong until officers arrested him at his beach house next to the Indian Shores sanctuary.

The charity's insurance problems came at a time when Heath was also in trouble with the U.S. Department Labor for filing to pay his sanctuary workers the minimum wage guaranteed by law and failing to pay employment taxes to the IRS.

Workers told 8 On Your Side they had gone without paychecks for weeks, and in some cases months, during a period when they watched Heath pocket cash from donation boxes located on the grounds of the bird sanctuary.

Instead of facing trial on the felony fraud charge Heath has now qualified for something called Pretrial Intervention - or PTI - a program that allows first-time offenders to serve the equivalent of probation and make amends for an offense to avoid prosecution and a criminal conviction.

Heath's only other brush with the law was a 1998 domestic battery arrest. Prosecutors later dropped that charge.

If Heath successfully completes his PTI program for the insurance fraud charge, he will not have a criminal record, but that doesn't mean his troubles are over.

A lender recently foreclosed on the sanctuary's sprawling warehouse on Starkey Rd where Heath maintains a private menagerie of animals, and he has had to eliminate nearly his entire paid staff at the Indian Shores sanctuary in order to keep the doors open due to declining donations. In 2011 the sanctuary reported a $200,000 deficit to the IRS.

After a number of Heath's key employees became disenchanted with his leadership they resigned and started their own bird rescue operation called Gulfcoast Bird Rescue which is currently negotiating with the City of Largo for another bird sanctuary site.

There is no 2012 or 2013 financial report for the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary on file with Heath has ignored 8 On Your Side's repeated requests in recent weeks for a more current financial accounting. Under IRS rules, all charities must hand over the latest financial report immediately upon request in order to maintain tax-exempt status.

Despite all of his financial troubles Heath's charity does have one sizeable asset still on the books.

The 65-foot pleasure yacht "Whisker" that is outfitted with five luxury staterooms and at one time had a hot tub on deck, remains in dry storage. An 8 On Your Side investigation discovered that over the years Heath spent at least $1.3 million of his sanctuary's donations to purchase, renovate and operate the yacht he calls his "research vessel."

It's not clear how much the sanctuary yacht is currently worth because the engines are broken and it has been decaying in a boat yard for more than a decade.

Like the sanctuary itself, Whisker has seen better days.

Copyright 2014 WFLA. All rights reserved.

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