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    Helicopter company owner denies bilking customers

    In an interview in jail, he says he was in over his head but never set fire to his business to resolve financial problems.

    By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 2, 2002


    LARGO -- Richard Naylor says he was an honest businessman who doesn't drink to excess, do drugs or cheat his business partners.

    "I have a perfect record," he said in a recent interview. "I don't even have a speeding ticket in the last 15 years. How come at 53 years old I decided to become a crook?"

    But Naylor said he is no crook, notwithstanding a grand theft conviction in 2000.

    Statewide prosecutors portray Naylor as the scheming owner of a Clearwater helicopter company who stole $5.5-million from up to 27 customers and investors he promised newly refurbished helicopters that he never delivered.

    Once the scheme began collapsing, they say, a desperate Naylor, who is now 55, set fire to his business, Thunderbird Helicopter Service.

    Court documents make clear that Naylor's former secretary, Tina Price, will testify against him at a trial later this year. She told prosecutors that Naylor confessed to her that he had started the fire.

    Price, 39, has pleaded guilty to charges that she participated in a scheme to bilk customers of Naylor's company. She has not been sentenced.

    In his first interview since prosecutors filed 58 charges against him earlier this year, Naylor said from the Pinellas County Jail that he is innocent of accusations against him and that, if anything, he was simply a businessman in over his head.

    Naylor, a helicopter pilot and Vietnam veteran who worked as a crop-duster in the 1970s, said he had no insurance on his business and the six helicopters destroyed in the fire, and made no money from the blaze.

    "What did I gain?" he said. "I lost my retirement in that fire. It's everything. I lost it all. . . . If I was going to set the fire, I'm smart enough to be out of town, insure the place for $2-million and hire someone to do it for me."

    Statewide prosecutors handling the case did not return calls for comment. Pinellas sheriff's investigators have previously said that Naylor, facing increasing pressure from investors who were demanding their money, set the June 1998 fire that destroyed much of his business. They said he did so after moving out aircraft parts that might prove valuable.

    Naylor denied the allegations and said he would simply have declared bankruptcy.

    "Bankruptcy would have put everybody on hold," Naylor said. "I didn't do that. Once they clamped down on me, everybody lost their money because I was out of business."

    Prosecutors allege that Naylor lived an extravagant lifestyle with the money he obtained, traveling to Las Vegas to gamble. He maintained a Georgia property for a girlfriend, investigators say.

    The woman, Jamee R. Hutchinson, 32, told investigators that she became a "kept woman" after she began dating Naylor. Starting in 1992, she said, Naylor began paying $1,000 a month for her living expenses.

    Hutchinson told investigators that she knew Naylor was never going to leave his wife for her. So she decided "she would get whatever she could get out of him financially," an investigative report said.

    She said he lavished gifts on her that included expensive jewelry, trips and furniture.

    Naylor denied living the lavish life portrayed by prosecutors. But he does not deny that he enjoyed the company of women whom he might have helped financially, though not to excess.

    "You do it because you want sex," he said, saying he often spent money to help friends. "If you really had a problem, I'd help you. If that makes me a bad guy, then I'm sorry."

    Naylor faces numerous charges, from organized fraud to racketeering and grand theft. Others also have been charged in the alleged scheme, including his son, Todd Naylor, who the elder Naylor says had little to do with the business.

    Even if Richard Naylor is acquitted at a trial -- no date is set -- Naylor won't win his freedom.

    In late 2000, Naylor was convicted of grand theft in Georgia after taking $125,000 for a helicopter that he never delivered. He is appealing the conviction.

    That Georgia case, and the Florida charges against him, are miscast in criminal court, Naylor said. If business deals go bad, he said, then his customers can sue him.

    "They say that I defrauded all these people out of their money," Naylor said. "I've got 50 happy customers. And I have a list."

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