By CHRIS TISCH, Times Staff Writer
The former owner of Thunderbird Helicopter Service in Clearwater was accused of taking millions through fraud and burning down his business to conceal his crimes.
The former owner of a Clearwater helicopter business was sentenced to five years in prison this week on charges he defrauded investors out of millions of dollars, then torched his business to cover it up.
Richard P. Naylor, 60, pleaded no contest to 19 criminal charges, including fraud and arson, in November. He faced a minimum of about 11 years and a maximum of more than 100 years in prison.
But after a sentencing hearing Monday, Judge Robert Beach agreed to depart from the sentencing guidelines and send Naylor to prison for five years. Nearly 500 days will be sliced from his sentence for time he already served in jail.
His lawyers also plan to ask Beach to cut another 3 ½ years off his sentence for time Naylor served in Georgia for charges related to his helicopter business. A Georgia jury convicted Naylor of those crimes, but an appellate court later overturned the case.
Authorities said Naylor owned Thunderbird Helicopter Service in Clearwater in the 1990s when he stole up to $5.5-million from more than 20 investors. Naylor either delivered helicopters that were "deathtraps," authorities said, or didn't deliver them at all.
Once the scheme began collapsing, Naylor set fire to his business in 1998, authorities said.
Naylor claimed he was simply a businessman who got in over his head. He never admitted to any criminal wrongdoing.
Prosecutors asked Beach to sentence Naylor to more than 20 years in prison.
"We had millions of dollars stolen and an arson to destroy evidence, so I thought it was warranted," said Mark Campbell, an assistant statewide prosecutor who argued for the state Tuesday.
Naylor's defense team asked the judge to spare him from prison.
"There has never been any factual determination of whether Rick's conduct was criminal in nature," said Fred Carrington, one of his defense attorneys.
Carrington said Naylor, who was arrested in 2001, wanted to get the case over with.
"It's more like a plea of convenience," Carrington said. "He just wanted to end it."
Naylor will serve 10 years of probation after his prison term. Beach suspended 10 years of prison from the sentence, meaning Naylor could be sentenced to that much time behind bars if he violates the terms of his probation.
Naylor, who was out of jail on $100,000 bail since 2002, began running another helicopter business in Williston, which is southwest of Gainesville.
Campbell said there have been similar complaints against that business, though he could not comment on whether there is an active investigation.