JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As the I-TEAM continues to dig into a battle involving the fate of Celestial Farms Animal Rescue on Jacksonville’s Northside, parents reached out to News4JAX about the consequences of the ongoing spat.
Celestial Farms, a local nonprofit farm, animal rescue and educational center, was set to host a “Farm School Day” on Wednesday, but the farm is currently closed to the public and its future remains uncertain due to an argument over finances.
The parents who paid the $10 for their children to attend the event to learn about the 200 farm animals said they saw a post on Sunday, confirming the Farm School Day was still on, and received an appointment reminder the day before the event -- only to be turned away from a locked gate at the property on Wednesday.
“We were supposed to go out for Farm School Day and take our children out there to learn about trees. And we showed up and the gate was locked. We had already paid our fees. We sat there for over 30 minutes and nobody came to the gate, and a neighbor came out to tell us that they were closed,” said one parent, who asked not to be identified.
Celestial Farms is home to roughly 200 rescued farm animals, horses, pigs and goats. Now the farm is at the center of an ongoing dispute, and many of the nonprofit’s board members aren’t even allowed on the property as new and old management accuse each other of mishandling funds.
The parent News4JAX spoke to Saturday said that’s what most concerns her -- where her money is going -- not that she’s out the $10.
She said she knew about the ongoing dispute but had gotten word that the event she paid for would still be happening.
“We had heard that they had been closed, but however they sent us a confirmation, as well as an email saying that they were open for the Farm School Days,” the parent said.
Staff members said it’s unclear why those notifications were still sent.
Parents later received an email from Celestial Farms that read in part: “… we are unable to process refunds at this time due to being locked out of all financial accounts by the previous executive director” (meaning the current president, Veronica Pasciuto).
The farm has been in Pasciuto’s family for 20 years, and she’s accusing the current executive director, Rory Malloy, of not paying a $300,000 balloon mortgage payment that she says he agreed to.
“We pretty much lost our money and now they’re telling us that we can’t get a refund so it feels like we were lied to,” the parent said.
Malloy said that according to the scheduler, the money is going to PayPal.
Pasciuto said parents can request a refund through their PayPal account that was used to purchase the tickets or they can reach out to her at Ctog@msn.com.
Malloy said to prevent future payments, they’ve taken the website down and removed the ability to book events.
Malloy told News4JAX he took on the role of executive director back in September 2021. He said during that time, the farm was in very bad shape as COVID crushed it financially.
“For the last year plus it’s been my life,” Malloy said. “Not only the animals, but the people there have been my family.”
Malloy said his position replaced Pasciuto, and he was given eight months to pay off the nearly $300,000 mortgage balloon payment that was due June 29. Back in April, the farms created a GoFundMe account in hopes of making the mortgage payment.
“Our current goal is to fully purchase the property with the upcoming balloon payment,” the GoFundMe said. “This will secure the farm’s future, a home for all of these rescued animals, and a space for the community to come together. Our deadline is June 29, 2022.”
With over 500 people donating, the GoFundMe raised more than $30,000.
Now Pasciuto is calling out the employees on social media. According to her Facebook post, she agreed to sell Malloy the property for $600,000. Celestial Farms employees accuse Pasciuto of wanting to walk away with the money.
Pasciuto said on Facebook Malloy hasn’t paid her. In an email sent to Malloy’s attorney in May, Pasciuto asked for proof on a loan in progress by end of the month.
Cellphone video showed a moving truck showing up at the farm last Saturday. Malloy said he noticed a laptop was gone, the gate was locked and passwords to accounts were changed.
The next day, he and his fellow employees received termination letters. The letter accuses them of “aiding and abetting in theft of all office files, donations, and the website.”
It also said they locked the board and president out of all accounts.
The letter reads in part: “Due to this behavior and the wasting of 8 months of being able to obtain funding for the balloon payment, we will have to close this location of our organization.”
Celestial Farms employees said they did not misuse the money.
“All we’ve done is what is right for the animals,” Malloy said. “We have not tried to personally profit.”
Malloy told News4JAX he no longer has access to the donation accounts, and that the status of the GoFundMe money is unclear.
Both sides said they are considering seeking legal action.
Malloy said as far as the animals -- only one employee is currently allowed on the property to check on the animals and said he’s not sure how they’re doing.
Emails News4JAX obtained show Pasciuto plans to move the animals to Georgia.