PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary founder Ralph Heath has been investigated over the years by at least 10 different federal, state and local agencies for issues such as insurance fraud, failure to pay taxes, violation of labor laws, child pornography, domestic abuse, violation of probation, violation of wildlife regulations, neglect of animals and building code violations.
It’s hard to put a cost on the sum total of all of those investigations, but there is no question that as taxpayers, You Paid For It.
“Obviously, there has been taxpayer dollars to investigate that and remedy that and those expenditures continue on both sides,” said attorney Noel Boeke. He represents Heath’s sons and other family members who have now filed suit to wrestle control of the Sanctuary and its property away from Heath. “The family has tried for the past several years to negotiate with Ralph an easy exit,” Boeke said.
Heath is facing what may be the biggest challenge of all to his personal survival as an iconic wildlife rescuer in the lawsuit filed by his own adult children. That lawsuit essentially seeks to push Heath out of the picture once and for all and to appoint a receiver to run what’s left of his now beleaguered animal rescue charity on Indian Shores.
“At the end of the day the mission is to save those birds,” said Boeke.
A motion filed by Boeke’s law firm alleges that Heath had seized control of the charity’s bank account but is refusing to pay the charity’s bills.
Heath’s son, Andrew Von Gontard alleges in court records that Heath is preventing the Sanctuary from paying expenses and has diverted the charity’s mail to himself at an unknown location. Von Gontard goes on to allege that Heath is trying to fire key staff at the Sanctuary and “falsely inform the public that Suncoast is no longer operating as a wildlife sanctuary.” Heath’s son claims his father is diverting the charity’s money for his own personal use and to fund litigation against the family.
There is also a reference to the inoperable pleasure yacht that Heath purchased long ago with charity donations as a “research vessel” that continues to bleed resources away from the sanctuary at the rate of $650 a month for storage feels,a debt that now amounts to $36,500 for boat that hasn’t floated in nearly ten years.
FWC officers investigating animal mistreat at a warehouse operated by Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary founder Ralph Heath
FWC officers investigating animal mistreat at a warehouse operated by Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary founder Ralph Heath x
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The suit, filed last month in Pinellas County, describes Heath’s leadership of his Sanctuary as a financial disaster.
“Suncoast has and will continue to commit waste by, among other things, incurring debt obligations that its revenues clearly cannot support,” the lawsuit states.
For years Heath has spent his charity’s dollars to the point of insolvency. His practice has been to avoid permanent shutdowns by mortgaging whatever property he could to generate more cash and making frantic calls for help to well-meaning donors.
Time and again, his adult sons, whose mother is an heiress the Anheuser-Busch beer fortune, have bailed out Heath when he reached the brink of financial disaster. The sons, whose business it is to buy and sell distressed real estate properties, now own every scrap of property that used to belong to Heath or the Sanctuary.
They are now calling in the debt and moving to foreclose on the past piece of property controlled by heath, a sprawling warehouse on Starkey Road raided three months ago by state wildlife agents who seized illegal animals and cited heath for a number of criminal violations involving neglect and violation of wildlife regulations. “The conditions at the warehouse are deplorable,” Boeke said.
Many of the specific complaints against Heath cited and documented in the sons’ 68-page lawsuit, are based on News Channel 8’s ongoing 20-year investigation of Heath’s business practices, neglect of animals entrusted to his care, and even a “pornographic website” that Heath allowed to photograph nearly nude girls between the ages of 13 and 17 on various Sanctuary properties and even inside the bathroom of his Sanctuary-owned beach house.
Heath has refused to speak to 8 On Your Side for years and could not be reached for comment in this story.