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

Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary founder won't go to jail

Posted: Updated:
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 Guidestar.org. 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.


  • 8 On Your SideMore>>

  • Mold takes over St. Pete condo, creeps into neighbors' homes

    Mold takes over St. Pete condo, creeps into neighbors' homes

    Friday, August 29 2014 5:48 PM EDT2014-08-29 21:48:06 GMT
    Josephine Ramos is literally sick about the toxic black mold growing in the St. Petersburg condominium beside hers. She's been feeling ill for months with headaches and breathing problems. Recently, she had peak inside the condo next doors and couldn't believe her eyes.
    Josephine Ramos is literally sick about the toxic black mold growing in the St. Petersburg condominium beside hers. She's been feeling ill for months with headaches and breathing problems. Recently, she had peak inside the condo next doors and couldn't believe her eyes.
  • Lakeland neighborhood has continuing water problems, asks 8OYS for help

    Lakeland neighborhood has continuing water problems, asks 8OYS for help

    Friday, August 29 2014 5:03 PM EDT2014-08-29 21:03:34 GMT
    Some Lakeland residents are tired of wondering whether they'll have water at home. Over the past month, they tell 8 On Your Side that they've lost water with no warning at least five times. And what's worse, the water stays off for up to eight hours at a time
    Some Lakeland residents are tired of wondering whether they'll have water at home. Over the past month, they tell 8 On Your Side that they've lost water with no warning at least five times. And what's worse, the water stays off for up to eight hours at a time
  • Abercrombie dropping logo to boost brand

    Abercrombie dropping logo to boost brand

    Friday, August 29 2014 7:15 AM EDT2014-08-29 11:15:46 GMT
    The Abercrombie & Fitch logo has lost the power it once wielded, so the struggling teen retailer plans to strip off the once-prized logo from its clothing. Shares tumbled Thursday after it reported weak sales as more teens shop elsewhere. 
    The Abercrombie & Fitch logo has lost the power it once wielded, so the struggling teen retailer plans to strip off the once-prized logo from its clothing. Shares tumbled Thursday after it reported weak sales as more teens shop elsewhere. 
  • NewsMore>>

  • TPD - house fire on Ida St. deliberately set

    TPD - house fire on Ida St. deliberately set

    Saturday, August 30 2014 2:26 PM EDT2014-08-30 18:26:55 GMT
    Crews with Tampa Fire Rescue arrived at this residence on Ida St. just after 2 am Saturday.Crews with Tampa Fire Rescue arrived at this residence on Ida St. just after 2 am Saturday.
    Timothy Mendenall spent the day cleaning up, after his rental home on Ida Street in Tampa caught fire. "All I know is when I got up the living room and the bedroom were burning," Mendenall said. "So we got the hose and buckets of water and then the Fire Department got here."
    Timothy Mendenall spent the day cleaning up, after his rental home on Ida Street in Tampa caught fire. "All I know is when I got up the living room and the bedroom were burning," Mendenall said. "So we got the hose and buckets of water and then the Fire Department got here."
  • Man struck, killed on US 41 in Tampa

    Man struck, killed on US 41 in Tampa

    Saturday, August 30 2014 12:08 PM EDT2014-08-30 16:08:23 GMT
    The fatal crash is under investigation by the Florida Highway Patrol. The fatal crash is under investigation by the Florida Highway Patrol.
    A 43-year-old Gibsonton man was struck and killed Friday night while walking along US 41 in Tampa.James Warfle was pronounced dead at the scene at approximately 10:30 pm.
    A 43-year-old Gibsonton man was struck and killed Friday night while walking along US 41 in Tampa.James Warfle was pronounced dead at the scene at approximately 10:30 pm.
  • Missing New Port Richey couple rescued from Gulf

    Missing New Port Richey couple rescued from Gulf

    Saturday, August 30 2014 11:39 AM EDT2014-08-30 15:39:40 GMT
    The Coast Guard towed the couple's disabled sailboat back to land early Saturday.The Coast Guard towed the couple's disabled sailboat back to land early Saturday.
    A Bay area couple that failed to return from a boating excursion in the Gulf of Mexico was rescued early Saturday approximately 10 miles northwest of Anclote Key.A friend of Bogdan and Elizabeth Makowski contacted the United States Coast Guard Station Sand Key on Friday after not hearing from the couple for several days.
    A Bay area couple that failed to return from a boating excursion in the Gulf of Mexico was rescued early Saturday approximately 10 miles northwest of Anclote Key.A friend of Bogdan and Elizabeth Makowski contacted the United States Coast Guard Station Sand Key on Friday after not hearing from the couple for several days.
  • Sign up for WFLA News Channel 8 Email Alerts

    * denotes required fields






    Thank you for signing up! You will receive a confirmation email shortly.
Powered by WorldNow

1336 Augusta West Parkway
Augusta, GA 30909

Telephone: 706.722.6664
Email: talkback6@wjbf.com

Can't find something?
Powered by WorldNow
All content © Copyright 2000 - 2014 Media General Communications Holdings, LLC. A Media General Company.