Former operator of Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary won’t account for $1.2 million BP oil settlement proceeds

INDIAN SHORES, Fla. (WFLA) — Bird rescuer Ralph Heath has some explaining to do regarding a $1.2 million BP oil settlement claim his charity reportedly received in March of 2016, just months before Heath drove his bird rescue charity into financial ruin.

Monday, Heath returned our questions about the BP claim with a blank stare at his current base of operations, a windowless warehouse on Starkey Road in Largo. State wildlife agents raided that warehouse in May 2016 and seized dozens of animals living in squalor under Heath’s care.

Records obtained by 8 on Your Side show that the BP Economic and Property Damages Settlement Trust distributed $1,183,006.36 to Heath’s Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary on March 17, 2016. Records indicate the money was for a consolidated business loss claim that included the Indian Shores sanctuary along with a rental home and a rental warehouse associated with the charity.

That’s where our questions begin. We can’t find any indication that Heath or his bird charity ever rented the warehouse or the home, which doubled as his mother’s residence and charity office, as outside income properties. That makes it difficult to understand how there could be a sanctuary business loss. Local BP claims were generally based on a downturn in tourism as a result of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

Last year, Heath’s sons forced him to give up control of the Indian Shores property where he had operated the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary since the 1970’s. They threatened to sue him over allegations of theft and mismanagement involving his own charity. When Heath acquiesced, the sons formed a new charity called Seaside Seabird Sanctuary at the same Indian Shores location which is now managed by Eddie Gayton.

Eddie Gayton.

Gayton was running day-to-day operations under Heath last year and insists he never saw any indication that the BP money was spent on the sanctuary, even when it was spiraling into financial ruin.

“No sir,” Gayton said. “We were constantly struggling to keep this place afloat.”

Since Seaside formally took over the Indian Shores sanctuary in September, hard times have once again hit the charity. Gayton isn’t sure why but believes many of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary original donors are still giving to Heath in the belief that he is still running the Indian Shores sanctuary.

Monday, Gayton said the sanctuary only has a two-day supply of fish to feed the birds and donations are dwindling. He’s hoping the public will respond with cash donations, medicine and volunteers to help run the sanctuary.

“We are in desperate times and we need help right now in order to stay here,” Gayton said.

Gayton says the BP windfall would have been a godsend if the money had been spent on much-needed improvements last year and to replenish the sanctuary’s bank accounts.

“That would get us on our feet and started out to where we need to be to make this place great again,” Gayton said.

Meanwhile, Heath’s current animal rescue operation barely has a heartbeat according to his new Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary President Colleen Kindiris.

“It’s like dire straits,” Kindiris said.  

She tells us the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary bank account is down to about $200, and didn’t know anything about any BP oil money or where it ended up.

“I wasn’t aware of the situation,” Kindiris said.

She promised to look into the BP question and put us in touch with Heath’s lawyer but later texted us to say, “I was not allowed to give anyone, sorry. Have a blessed day.”

Whatever happened to the BP money, Heath will eventually have to report it on his IRS annual financial report for 2016 which automatically becomes a public record. BP has sent Heath a 1099-MISC form indicating the $1.2 million payment last year to his tax-exempt charity, but it may be a while before Heath files his 2016 report. We’re still waiting to see Heath’s financial report from 2015.

Whatever those charity financial reports reveal, Kindiris says she is certain about one thing when it comes to Heath.

“All he cares about is the birds,” Kindiris said.

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