8 ON YOUR SIDE: Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary founder fired after 45-year run

Ralph Heath Jr., now, and nearly 45 years ago
Ralph Heath Jr., now, and nearly 45 years ago

INDIAN SHORES, Fla. (WFLA) – Legendary pelican rescuer Ralph Heath Jr., who once told employees to regard him as the “King” of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, has finally been dethroned after ruling without restraint over that wildlife rescue charity at his family estate on Indian Shores for the past 45 years. The new organization operating at the same location on Indian Shores is now called the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary.

At his peak, Heath gained international fame as a seabird rescuer and champion of the environment. He married the granddaughter of August Busch, founder of the Anheuser-Busch beer empire.

In an ironic twist worthy of Shakespeare, it wasn’t one of Heath’s many critics or enemies who eventually seized his crown–his own sons did him in.  After a lawsuit filed by Andrew Von Gontard (one of Heath’s sons who took their stepfather’s name) the sons took control of the charity after years of financial shenanigans, sex scandals, and legal troubles provoked by Heath’s wobbly, eccentric, and sometimes downright bizarre leadership of the bird rescue organization.

They [Heath’s sons] have settled the lawsuits and reached an agreement that allows the successor organization to take over the sanctuary,” said family spokeswoman Kelly White.

Family members accused Heath of bringing the Sanctuary to its knees through years of mismanagement and outrageous behavior.

The family’s list of alleged wrongdoing spelled out in a lawsuit reads like an anthology of our numerous 8 On Your Side investigative reports that began in 1996:

  • Sexually provocative nearly nude photo sessions of underage girls that Heath allowed on Sanctuary property, inside his Sanctuary-owned beach house bathroom and his hot tub.
  • Sanctuary employees who videotaped Heath filling buckets with daily cash donations and claimed he kept that money while refusing to pay them.
  • Cronyism on the Sanctuary board that allowed Heath to do as he pleased.
  • IRS tax liens for unpaid payroll taxes.
  • S. Department of Labor sanctions for unpaid wages.
  • Repeated criminal charges and convictions by the FWC for animal neglect and abuse.
  • Heath’s operation of a 65-foot luxury yacht named Whisker– fitted with a hot tub– that Heath purchased and operated with charitable donations intended to help injured seabirds.

Our investigation revealed that the sanctuary spent at least $1.7 million in charitable donations to purchase, refit and operate Whisker. Heath called Whisker his “research vessel,” but a park ranger at Egmont Key who documented nude revelers aboard the Whisker told us he thought it looked more like a party boat to him. Whisker is now rotting away in dry dock at a Gandy Blvd boatyard and still accruing charity debt for unpaid storage fees.

All told, WFLA-TV produced 20 years of strange but true news investigative stories that challenged the Sanctuary’s multi-million dollar fundraising efforts but failed to reel in Heath’s bad behavior.

Heath’s sons finally pulled the plug on his leadership after rescuing the charity from financial ruin repeatedly in recent years and taking ownership of all of the Sanctuary’s real estate holdings in order to keep those properties out of foreclosure.

White says the family’s legal settlement officially removes Heath from the control of the Sanctuary and establishes new management and a new board of directors for that tax-exempt charity. Sanctuary worker Eddie Gayton, who has effectively been running the day-to-day operations of the Sanctuary in recent months as an unpaid volunteer, will assume the top role formerly held by Heath.

Heath has been locked out of the Sanctuary and told to stay away.

Heath has made it a practice over the past 20 years to ignore 8 On Your Side’s requests for comment. In one instance, Heath called police and tried to have me arrested when we showed up at a news conference he called to raise money.

At last report, Heath was living in a motor home parked outside of the charity’s Starkey Road warehouse in Largo. Last May state wildlife officers raided that same warehouse and documented a number of birds and turtles living in deplorable and unsanitary conditions inside. They seized a number of those animals.

Heath still faces criminal charges of animal neglect, abuse and unlicensed activity in relation to that raid. The Sanctuary’s “King” has not only lost his crown and his charity, he could also end up losing his freedom as a result of that ongoing prosecution.

For the man who cultured an almost mythical standing as a savior of seabirds since 1971, his place in the Sanctuary’s history is quite literally being erased.  All references to Heath have been scrubbed from the Sanctuary website.

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