Copter firm owner faces 58 charges
By DEBORAH O'NEIL
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2001
With a waterfront condo on Sand Key, a Mercedes and 60 acres in Georgia where he put up a girlfriend, Richard Patrick Naylor was living the life of a successful businessman.
But authorities say the 55-year-old was in over his head with investors he had taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from and customers he had promised newly refurbished helicopters he didn't deliver. On June 23, 1998, a desperate Naylor set fire to his business, Thunderbird Helicopter Service at 1710 Calumet St. in Clearwater, authorities say.
That fire began the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office criminal investigation into Naylor's complex business dealings. It took almost three years for authorities to unravel a web of bad deals and schemes that authorities say defrauded 27 people people out of $5.5-million since 1996.
Now Naylor is facing 58 criminal charges ranging from racketeering and organized fraud to arson and grand theft. He is serving a 10-year prison sentence in Georgia on related charges and will be extradited to Pinellas County to be prosecuted by the statewide prosecutor's office.
Thursday, the Sheriff's Office arrested Naylor's son, Todd Christopher Naylor, 24, of Clearwater, on seven charges: conspiracy to commit racketeering, organized fraud and five counts of grand theft.
The Sheriff's Office has filed five more arrest warrants in the case for associates of Naylor.
His victims ranged from multimillionaire business owners to lawyers to blue collar workers, according to investigators Sgt. Dale Romeo and Detective Karl Cruise. Some victims wanted to buy helicopters and others gave Naylor money to restore helicopters with the promise that they would get a cut of the profit when the aircraft were sold.
Naylor would monitor crashes on the National Transportation Safety Board Web site to find aircraft that had been involved in accidents and make an offer for them, the investigators said. The investors provided him with the money.
He managed to string the investors along by sending them letters indicating that they had earned thousands, when in fact they had not, authorities say. Without delivering the profits, Naylor would persuade the investors to let him reinvest the money. Of his victims, Phil Agnes, a non-practicing lawyer in Sarasota, lost the most, according to authorities: more than $1-million.
On the other end, Naylor had customers who wanted to buy the helicopters he had bought and would pay him to repair the aircraft. He'd sell helicopters for $150,000 to almost $900,000.
Authorities say they could not find one person who was satisfied with the aircraft they bought from Naylor. He would use parts whose life span could not be documented, investigators say, and he made some of the parts himself.
One Georgia businessman paid $150,000 for a Hiller helicopter to shuttle people around his California vineyard, the investigators said. Soon after he bought it, it began to leak fluids. A helicopter repair shop grounded the helicopter immediately.
In some cases, Naylor would sell the same helicopter to multiple people by changing the serial numbers. He'd collect their money and promise it would be ready soon. Sometimes he took deposits, but he offered a 10 percent discount to people who paid for their helicopters upfront in full.
In some cases, Naylor was selling helicopters he never had.
"He'd manage to get serial numbers and registration numbers of the copters," Romeo said. "He'd pick up photos at trade shows and scan them in and send them to people and say, "This is your helicopter.' "
In June 1998, investigators say, Naylor was facing growing pressure from investors who were demanding their money. That's when, authorities say, Naylor intentionally set fire to his business, but not before moving a handful of his good aircraft out.
"The week of the fire he had to deliver either a million dollars of copters or money and he didn't have it," Cruise said.
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