Thursday, 7 May 2015

NEWSLINK: Beaufort big cat owner has fraud conviction on his record

A Beaufort business owner fighting the county for the right to display his big cats has faced legal trouble before. Beaufort Liquidation owner Jeff Lowe -- who requested a jury trial on Thursday to determine whether exhibiting lions and tigers violates the zoning ordinance for his property -- pleaded guilty in 2008 to mail fraud, according to federal court records.

The conviction stemmed from a scheme in which he posed as an employee of Citizens Opposed to Domestic Abuse to get more than $1 million worth of goods for a fraction of their value, according to the court records. Lowe declined to speak about the outcome of that investigation, saying the case was nonsense in 2004 "and it's even more of a crock now."

"I was never arrested," Lowe said Thursday.

The court records, however, show he was indicted in 2007 on four counts of fraud and accused of falsely acquiring goods meant for CODA between 2003 and 2005, and selling them in his warehouse. He was released on his own recognizance, according to his bond agreement, and pleaded guilty one year later to one count of fraud as part of a plea agreement to provide "detailed financial information to the United States Probation Office."

Though the charges carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000, Lowe was sentenced only to one year of probation. He also agreed to make a $10,000 donation to CODA in lieu of a fine, according to court records. His FBI case has not hindered Lowe from growing his business.
Lowe also continued to operate his warehouse business in Beaufort and launched a short-lived discount clothing venture with Mayor Billy Keyserling and Keyserling's brother. Lowe claims his Beaufort Liquidation store is the smallest of 13 partner companies in Florida and North Carolina, and that his operation in Charlotte has also been the site of filming for a reality television show.

While Lowe said in 2012 the show began filming in Beaufort and was slated to air on A&E, a spokesperson for the network said Thursday A&E is not filming any show with Lowe. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg County's tax office also said it had no record of a business license for Lowe. Still, Lowe says filming for the show moved to Charlotte after he was forced to close the outdoor flea market in the spring of 2014 because it was too close to Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, he said. When his Liquidation store reopened as an indoor market in March, it featured a home for his cats, a United States Department of Agriculture license to display two tigers and one lion, and free guided tours that immediately came under scrutiny by Beaufort County.

Deputy county administrator Josh Gruber said the county has now received more than 100 letters from residents and interest groups concerned about Lowe's animals. Those comments are being reviewed by Beaufort County Council, Gruber said. He did not know when Beaufort Magistrate Court would schedule Lowe's jury trial. Lowe is allowed to own more than the three animals, but cannot display any others without updating his license, according to Tanya Espinosa, a spokeswoman for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services.

However, Lowe has exhibited at least five other big cats at the business.

Espinosa said the USDA was not aware Lowe owned other animals and is currently looking into his compliance with the Animal Welfare Act. If a judge rules he cannot display his big cats, Lowe said he has a plan. He will close his flea market and convert it into an animal sanctuary that will be closed to the public.
"I'm going to fill this place. Absolutely fill it with animals," Lowe said. "They (the county) think they're going to discourage me because I can't show them to people, but that's not what this is about. This is about housing animals and giving them lives that are safe and secure."

Nick Sculac of Serenity Springs Wildlife Center in Calhan, Colo., said Lowe's inventory will soon grow beyond the 12 big cats in his Beaufort warehouse. Sculac plans to finalize the sale of his zoo -- home to 160 lions, tigers, leopards and other big cats -- to Lowe by the end of the summer. Lowe also claims he has animals in a facility in Wynnewood, Okla., which is also the location of the Garold Wayne Interactive Zoological Park -- a nonprofit zoo with more than 100 big cats on display, according to its last USDA inspection report.

Lowe said his animals are in a separate facility, though he has plans to buy the zoo as well. That facility's owner, Joe Schreibvogel, said Wednesday that Lowe has visited his zoo, though it's not for sale and he's not aware of any other big cats in Wynnewood -- a city of about 2,200 people -- other than at his facility.
"(Lowe) has absolutely no ties to us," Schreibvogel said. On Thursday, Lowe maintained he is a partner of the zoo and declined to comment further.


Read more here: http://www.islandpacket.com/2015/04/30/3725649/big-cat-owner-has-fraud-conviction.html#storylink=cpy
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