Sybil Erdens dreams of creating a world-class bird sanctuary to help her feathered friends has turned into a nightmare.
The Arizona bird lover, who rescues exotic birds, blames Jason and Mary Sanderson for the financial troubles now plaguing The Oasis Sanctuary - a bird refuge in Cascabel, Ariz., that the Epping couple helped build with a portion of their $66 million Powerball jackpot, but have now stopped funding.
"Were operating this facility on a shoestring," lamented Erden, who runs the sanctuary.
The Oasis Sanctuary Foundation is now suing the Sandersons, claiming they broke a promise to provide the bird rescue and retirement facility with $2.4 million over a 24-year period to support its expansion.
The suit by the Arizona nonprofit isnt the only one targeting the Sandersons and their big bucks. Equine Protection of North America (EPONA), an Epping-based horse rescue organization, is also suing Mary Sanderson, claiming that she has failed to continue funding the group she co-founded as she had promised in a 20-year contract.
The financial contributions to Oasis and EPONA ended earlier this year after the Sandersons filed for divorce. Mary Sanderson continues to live at the Epping farm she and her husband bought after they won the lottery in 1997; Jason now lives in Newfields.
The Sandersons argue that, according to their attorney, Mark Rouvalis, theyre not obligated to continue making the donations.
Under the law, Rouvalis said, a person cant be forced to make a charitable contribution.
"In our view, the law does not allow a contract to make a gift. No one can be forced to give an amount beyond what they voluntarily want to give," Rouvalis said.
Rouvalis has filed a motion seeking to dismiss the Oasis case. He has not yet filed a response in the EPONA case.
Like EPONA, Erden said the bird sanctuary relied on the Sandersons annual contribution to fund its operations.
"The whole idea here is to have a world-class facility," Erden said Friday. "All of our projects have come to a halt."
Relationship began in 1998
The relationship between Oasis and the Sandersons began in 1998, when Mary Sanderson contacted Erden after reading many of her columns in the avian publication "Pet Bird Report." Erden said that Sanderson, a bird lover herself, had explained how she and her husband had won the Powerball jackpot and wanted to help Oasis financially.
At the time, Erden was operating Oasis on an acre of land near her 3,000-square-foot house.
The Sandersons dventually agreed to donate $100,000 - from their annual lottery payment - to the sanctuary each year for 24 years to help Oasis grow into a world-class avian rescue facility.
The Sandersons financial help initially represented about 80 percent of the sanctuarys donation base, said Erden. Oasis now relies on the Sandersons for about 50 percent of its donation income.
Oasis received its first $100,000 payment in 1999. Erden said the last annual payment came in 2003.
Erden said she had been looking for more land - up to about 10 acres - to relocate the facility. However, according to the suit, the Sandersons encouraged Oasis to find at least 40 acres. In 2000, Oasis purchased a 72-acre former pecan orchard for $300,000. The Sandersons put $50,000 toward the down payment, and Oasis used its own money to cover the balance of the amount, according to the suit. Oasis took out a 5-year mortgage on the property.
Financial woes begin
The financial woes began when Erden said that Oasis received a letter from the Sandersons attorney last February stating they would no longer be donating to the sanctuary.
"The Sandersons impending divorce creates a substantial change in their circumstances, which necessitates a change in their obligations," Rouvalis wrote. The Sandersons could not be reached for comment.
In their divorce proceedings, filed in Rockingham County Superior Court, the Sandersons acknowledged the financial agreement they made with Oasis.
"As a result of changed circumstances and other considerations, they are seeking to eliminate or modify the agreement," court documents state.
The Sandersons have agreed to share equally in the cost to defend themselves in the Oasis lawsuit.
The divorce papers do not mention the agreement EPONA claims the Sandersons signed to provide $70,000 each year for 20 years to the horse rescue organization.
Meanwhile, Erden said the sanctuary wont be closing its doors, but she admitted that its tough finding the $17,000 a month needed to care for the more than 400 birds at the facility.
"Its a lot of money. We have a major reliance (on the Sandersons) and have made long-term financial commitments to create this facility based on the promises they made," said Erden. "If we had a few years notice that things were going to be changing, we might have been able to generate more revenue sources."