License to shill: Driving-school mogul slips past regulations

Staff writerJanuary 7, 2013 

Editor's note: This story was originally published On July 17, 2005.

Government agents tail Gary Probst, but he drives too fast. For 10 years, they've been chewing his dust.

Probst, 52, lives in Midland - and in Hawaii, Canada, Lakewood and a fist-sized mailbox in an Oregon storefront. It depends on who asks and why.

He is the monarch of a tacky empire, king of Washington's commercial driving schools. His franchise uses several names, linked to one another on Internet sites he created: Diamond Driving School, America's Best Driving School and Quality Driving School.

His castles - featureless cubbyholes lined with folding chairs - hide in strip malls throughout the state, beckoning teens to the Holy Grail of adolescence: a driver's license.

Last week, Probst refused multiple requests to speak to The News Tribune about this story and answer questions about his schools. Statistics from the state of Washington reveal the scale of his franchise.

From mid-2001 through June 2005, 201,629 Washington teens obtained their licenses after completing a required traffic safety education course, according to data from the state Department of Licensing. Within that group, 24,701 - about one of every eight teen drivers in the state - graduated from schools linked to Probst.

State records show many received shabby training.

At Probst's schools, hundreds of students never spent four supervised hours behind the wheel, as state rules require. Some students skipped classes, but still got credit for attending. They didn't complete all their required drives, but their teachers signed forms saying otherwise.

Instead of learning in supervised, hourlong drives, students have driven their teachers to fast-food joints to pick up orders of cashew chicken, and watched Cheech and Chong movies in class. They've been taught how to beat a traffic ticket, and told it's OK to park in a disabled parking space if they keep the motor running. Some haven't learned parallel parking, because their teachers don't know how to do it.

After graduating, they failed their initial state driver licensing tests more often than their peers at other schools. After passing the tests and obtaining their licenses, they skidded into a few more accidents and earned a few more traffic tickets.

Records show some students in Probst's schools have been trained by felons and unlicensed teachers, in violation of state law. A few instructors hid behind false names, concealing their identities and lack of training from state regulators. Several former Diamond employees have told the state that Probst and his son Sean ordered them to falsify student records.

The state has suspended some of those teachers - but not the driving-school king. He smears and sues his critics, slips through legal loopholes, and bends and breaks state rules as he pleases.

Meanwhile, thousands of teens cruise from his schools to the freeways, armed with questionable training from teachers the state does not supervise.

Their parents grew up in an era when local teachers in public schools taught driver's ed to generations of students. That safety net - real or imagined - is almost gone, shredded by state budget cuts.

"We're giving a legalized weapon to students who don't know how to drive - a 2,000-pound weapon, " says one state source familiar with Probst and his schools.

In the industry, Probst's activities are an open secret. Parents, teens and competitors complain repeatedly to the state about Diamond and America's Best. Various state investigators have targeted Probst for the last six years.

For multiple state agencies, he's a bone in the throat - but leaders say the laws aren't strong enough to stop him.

"It's a frustrating situation. He's developed strategies for working along the edges of the system, " says Brad Benfield, spokesman for the Department of Licensing, regulator of commercial driving schools.

'A DRIVING MILL'

A vast array of state investigative records shows that for a fee typically lower than any competitor, teens in Probst's schools get a cheap ride.

They take all the sessions required by the state - sometimes. They spend four hours behind the wheel with a grown-up and a second set of brakes - sometimes. Their teachers are certified by the state - sometimes.

One student in a Probst school, driving on the freeway for the first time, juggled the steering wheel and a cell phone at her teacher's direction as she headed toward the Tacoma Narrows Bridge at 55 miles per hour. Soon, her teacher claimed, state laws would require her to know how.

In one of many complaint letters sent to the state, Brenda Spence, a Centralia mother, compared the school her daughter attended to a backyard breeding operation.

"I have to wonder if America's Best is like a puppy mill, but instead a driving mill?" she wrote. "In my opinion, the only service they are offering is selling driving certificates at the expense of our young people's safety."

Spence's daughter, Krystle Miller, added a comment of her own.

"Someone should fix how well the driving schools teach their students to be prepared for a world of driving, " she said. "I know that I may not be ready!"

FIRST IN THE MARKET, FIRST IN SANCTIONS

In the last five years, the state has temporarily shut down six of Probst's schools and sanctioned 23 instructors. His schools lead the state in sanctions - 23 of 24 announced by the DOL since 2002 are linked to Probst.

He dominates the driving-school market. Of 213 registered commercial schools in Washington, Probst is directly connected to at least 33 east and west of the Cascades - possibly more than 40, according to state records. No competitor owns half as many.

The precise numbers are unclear because Probst shrouds them in bureaucratic fog. State records show he uses surrogate owners, including his children, to conceal his involvement. Investigators have cited those arrangements as violations of state law.

He preserves his financial interests with silent-partner contracts that guarantee him a percentage of revenue. State investigators have found evidence of at least 17 such agreements, and they also appear in lawsuits involving Probst.

He keeps state regulators working full time. In the endless cubicles and paper storms of three state agencies, he lives in file cabinets.

The Department of Labor and Industries keeps records of his four-year court battle to avoid paying worker's compensation. Records of his duels with the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction - inspections, ownership changes and back-and-forth debates over school regulations - flood a conference table 30 feet long.

At the Department of Licensing, boxes of files from a single investigation of Probst have to be stacked on a hand truck. That's one - there are 41 more. None led to discipline against Probst.

LIES AND LAWSUITS

Records from those investigations, his many court battles and interviews with ex-partners and state officials paint a portrait of Gary Probst as a first-class jerk.

He is a convicted fraud, booted from the Army 14 years ago for lying while he wore a chaplain's cross. Among other offenses, Probst wore medals for bravery that he never earned.

After his dishonorable discharge, he started a scuba and diving supply shop. Federal regulators fined him for shoddy handling of hazardous materials. He closed the business in 1995.

Probst started his first driving schools 10 years ago. On his first application for state certification, he concealed his background, never mentioning his military service or his conviction, though he was required to reveal it.

He has created a series of sham organizations: a traffic-safety think tank and two coalitions of driving instructors. The groups claim to promote the interests of all driving schools in the state, but records from the DOL and the secretary of state show the only members are his employees and associates.

Under the banner of his organizations, Probst has lobbied legislators and state leaders to loosen regulation of his schools. His lobbying efforts include letters sent to state lawmakers, signed with what investigators believe are false names.

Probst, who is white, also has used his organizations to claim his employees are victims of racial discrimination. For that purpose, he has claimed a political relationship with state Sen. Rosa Franklin (D-Tacoma), who is black. She says she's never heard of him.

He's sued three former partners who tried to escape his contracts, and silenced critical competitors with threats of legal action.

For good measure, Probst and his son Sean have a knack for beating speeding tickets: collectively, 11 in the past three years.

"Some people cannot walk straight to the door, " says Robert Hall, a former Probst partner and one of the few to beat him in court. "They always have to look for some tricky way to walk out the door - that's him."

reputation keeps others quiet

Competitors and former employees fear Probst - so much that many refuse to speak for the record.

Donald Munro, owner of several driving schools in Snohomish and King counties, admits he's afraid.

"I know I am, " he says. "I think he's just very, very, very ruthless."

Other teachers in the business hold similar views, and wonder why the state can't check the driving-school king.

"That's a question that the industry has been asking for several years, " says Tom Harris, owner of Sears Driving School, a franchise with 10 branches in the state.

Harris serves on the DOL's commercial driver training school advisory committee - a five-member group of appointees assigned to oversee the industry. The committee is drafting a new set of rules designed to toughen state standards. Several of the proposed rules aim squarely at the tactics Probst has used to foil state regulations, but they haven't been adopted yet.

While bureaucrats fret, Probst's grip on the state's driving-school market tightens. Fueled by recent shifts in state law that eliminated funding for driver's ed in public schools, commercial schools are booming, and Probst is riding the wave.

In 2000, he owned 17 schools. Since then, the number linked to him has more than doubled. Often, they open near successful competitors and undercut their prices.

"He finds where somebody's being successful, and he moves in right next door, " says Munro. "If you're a kid who doesn't know anything about Gary, doesn't know anything about what's going on, you got one class for $300, another for $199 - what are you gonna do?"

1990: THE LYING CHAPLAIN

Before Probst became the state's driving-school king, he lied his way to bitter fame.

It was 1990, and he was a chaplain at Fort Lewis assigned to Special Forces.

He had arrived in 1987, after a tour of duty in Hawaii.

Maj. Gary Probst, then in his late 30s, was creative, personable and popular. His performance impressed his commander, Tom Norton, I Corps chaplain at Fort Lewis.

"You'd see guys in his unit, and they would have great things to say about Chaplain Probst, " Norton said. "I was surprised that he got into trouble."

Leon Scamahorn served in Special Forces at the time. As he remembers it, Probst's veneer of popularity was thinner than it looked.

"He was popular with the support guys, the guys that supported the Special Forces team members, " Scamahorn said. "But all those Special Forces guys, like myself, really didn't have anything to do with him. There was something there I think we all kind of picked up on."

It was the bragging and the medals. Probst told soldiers he'd served in combat in Vietnam and wore decorations to prove it, including the Ranger Tab, the Navy Seal badge and the Bronze Star.

It was a sham. The medals were bought, the stories of bravery invented. Army investigators uncovered the truth and filed charges against Probst.

"His excuse was he was trying to get more respect from the troops, " Scamahorn said. "We all kind of really looked down on that."

Exposed, Probst admitted lying about his service record, and pleaded guilty to violating 10 counts of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The violations included wearing unauthorized awards and decorations and falsely signing official records.

He offered to resign his commission and avoid a court-martial - a common practice for officers charged with crimes.

Without explanation, the Army refused. Probst couldn't understand it. During a 1990 interview with a News Tribune reporter, he railed against his superiors.

"I'm totally amazed at the extreme the government has gone with me, like I'd done some real heinous crime, " he said. "I'm totally amazed at the vindictiveness.

"I could understand how they'd want to make an example of me if I was a person of endangerment. (But) I have not been a harm to anybody, " he said. "I have done the best job that I could as a chaplain ministering to people in the military. I always carry myself as a minister."

At the court-martial, Probst glittered like a dark star: He was the lying chaplain. The News Tribune, The Fort Lewis Ranger and The Seattle Times drowned him in ink.

A Seattle Times story quoted the lashing closing arguments of the Army prosecutor, Capt. Steve Strong, who accused Probst of inflating his record to obtain promotions.

"He learned the system and used it to his advantage, " Strong said. "He milked that cross for all it was worth."

In court, Probst offered excuses. The lies became a vicious circle, he said. He had to tell more of them to ingratiate himself with the soldiers. He apologized.

"It was not in keeping with the trust and integrity that was given to me, " he said. "I will always know it was wrong, and it is something I have to live with. I am very sorry that a number of people have suffered for that."

He was convicted and dishonorably discharged from the Army.

He had a wife, three children and no job. Those who knew him in those days say the balding, burly ex-chaplain looked like a beaten man.

EARLY VENTURE: THE SCUBA SHOP

Less than three weeks after the court-martial, he started a new business - a scuba shop called Pro Divers Supply. He operated out of his home on Veterans Drive in Lakewood.

Probst tried to build connections. He sought help from Robert Mester, a local legend in the dive industry.

Mester visited the dive shop a few times, but decided not to lend his name to promoting it.

"I really wasn't interested, " Mester recalls. "He never did anything personally wrong to me - he was just the kind of person I wouldn't want to associate with."

Probst reached out to Leon Scamahorn, who had left the service and started his own diving business. Scamahorn is the inventor of the Megalodon, a rebreathing device widely praised within the dive industry.

Probst wanted Scamahorn to teach classes at the shop. Scamahorn declined. He thought the operation looked a little scruffy.

"He was servicing equipment that he had no real training to service, " Scamahorn remembers. "He was always trying to do things on the cheap."

By 1995, the shop was failing. Federal regulators slapped Probst for cutting corners with hazardous materials. Records from the federal Department of Transportation show he was testing scuba tanks for metal fatigue and certifying them as safe, even though his testing equipment was defective.

The fine was $1,440. Probst argued it was too high. In a June 20, 1995, letter to government regulators, he said he'd moved to Canada, was $250,000 in debt, and couldn't pay.

THE FIRST SCHOOL

A month later, Probst, still living in Lakewood, filled out an application to become a substitute teacher in the Clover Park School District.

The form included questions about his background. Had he ever been convicted of a crime or discharged by an employer? The form noted that this included guilty pleas.

Probst checked the "no" box. Soon, his certificate was approved. It was the prelude to a new career: driving schools. He planned to start one on Veterans Drive.

Along with a pair of friends from church, Clyde Ogden and Murray Taylor, he enrolled in college classes to learn the ropes of driver education and gain state certification.

Taylor had a high opinion of Probst in those days. The ex-chaplain was a shirt-off-his-back sort, good with children, conversant with the Gospels, always ready to help people who were hurting.

"He was a very dynamic and friendly type of guy, " Taylor says. "If we had somebody in the church, for our indigent fund to help the poor and needy, he would write a check just like that. He'd help anybody at any time."

Before Probst could open a school, he had to run a regulatory gantlet through two agencies. At that time, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Department of Licensing shared oversight of driving schools.

The OSPI form asked Probst for his work history. He said he'd been self-employed since 1980. He didn't mention his decade of military service.

Two forms from the DOL - one for an instructor's license, the other for a school license - asked variations of the same question: Had Probst ever been convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude?

Probst checked the "no" box and signed the forms.

Both documents included a warning: Any false statements on the form could be grounds for revoking or suspending a license.

The state didn't know about his military conviction. Records from 1995 show officials ran a routine background check through the Washington State Patrol that turned up nothing.

The applications were approved. Diamond Driving School was open for business.

1995: A QUICK SUCCESS

Taylor, who also had his instructor certification, was Probst's first employee. As he recalls, the school was an instant hit, and the money was good. Probst paid Taylor $20 per student. Before long, he was teaching 100 at a time.

Diamond swiftly added branches in Olympia and Auburn, then Enumclaw, Puyallup and Tacoma. Probst hired more teachers: first Clyde Ogden, then Ogden's son-in-law, Rob Sheridan.

By now, Taylor knew Probst a little better. He'd seen his temper. They had quarreled over a new driving-school car that a nervous teen had driven into a ditch, and Taylor believed Probst was regretting the $20-per-student arrangement.

In 1997, they parted. Taylor took a job at Steilacoom High School, teaching traffic safety and music, his other love.

Ogden left around the same time and went to work for The Boeing Co. He was fed up with Probst. In a lawsuit filed several years later, he explained why.

"I observed, experienced and witnessed his business practices on a day-to-day basis for about two years, " Ogden wrote. "During this time, I found him to be dishonest, a liar, a cheat and a con man, frequently and knowingly practicing dishonest and fraudulent business dealings."

1997: PARTNERS PROVIDE COVER

Probst soon found other partners, including his longtime friend Reid Haroldsen and a Pasco resident named Joseph Hurley, who offered a path to the wide-open market of Eastern Washington.

Hurley, looking for opportunities after being laid off, had heard about Probst and the Diamond franchise from a relative. The two men met, and Probst explained his business model. Soon, they had a contract.

Probst wrote contracts for all his franchises, always under the same terms. In each case, his partner would run the school. Probst served as owner and consultant, and received a portion of the gross revenue.

He often leased the school site himself, and included noncompete agreements to prevent a partner from skipping and opening another school. He called the partners independent contractors, not employees - a wrinkle that would allow him to avoid the cost of worker's compensation insurance.

1998: THE EASY OUT

In 1998, Probst found a new site for a school in Auburn - but he was stuck with a lease at another location nearby. So he broke it, moving out in a single night.

The landlord, Jim Huff, was surprised. He filed a lawsuit seeking the rest of the rent - almost $3,000.

"I'm pretty easygoing, never get too excited about stuff - I just don't like to be taken advantage of by a guy, " Huff says, remembering the incident and how Probst handled it. "He did what he did without even being a man about it, and saying, 'Hey Jim, what does it take to get me out of this thing?' I'd have probably said 'Hey man, just give me your keys and I'll see you' - but that was not Gary."

Probst tried to dodge the suit. Court documents show that when a process server handed him legal papers at Veterans Drive on March 2, 1998, Probst signed them with a false name: "Jerry Dolan."

As the suit progressed, Probst sent a letter to Huff's attorney and said he lived in Oregon. After that, he faxed a letter to Pierce County Superior Court, saying he was living in Hawaii and needed a postponement of the case.

Around the same time, he bought a piece of land in Midland and started building a house.

1998: AUDITOR CATCHES UP

For Probst, the tiff with Huff was minor compared to his troubles with the state Department of Labor and Industries. An auditor named Pete Doellinger, sniffing a problem, told Probst his driving school contracts violated state law.

The partners weren't independent contractors, Doellinger said. They were employees. That meant Probst had to pay for worker's compensation insurance. The unpaid dues approached $30,000.

Probst protested. The state wouldn't budge. He sued, and fought the case for six years, appealing to the state Supreme Court before finally giving in.

In subsequent contracts with Diamond partners, Probst stopped listing himself as the owner. The new contracts also swore partners to secrecy.

2000: 'A HUGE DISSERVICE'

By 2000, Probst controlled about 17 driving schools around the state. Franchises extended to Shelton, Vancouver, Mountlake Terrace, Renton and Silverdale.

His old partners were getting restless. Relying on Probst's promises to sell the schools outright, they started calling in their markers.

Joe Hurley was ready for independence. He'd been running Probst's school in Pasco for three years, and offered to buy it for $100,000. Probst refused - he set a price of $683,000. Then he told Hurley that his friend Reid Haroldsen was taking over the school.

Cut out of the partnership, Hurley tried to start his own school. Probst sued him for breach of contract in Benton County Superior Court.

In the midst of the legal battle, a new Diamond school suddenly opened in Richland, an area where Hurley had hoped to compete.

Classes at Diamond of Richland started before the state approved the school. In September 2000, officials from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction stepped in and shut it down. That left 43 teens with useless graduation certificates.

"The driving school has done a huge disservice to these kids and these families, " an OSPI spokesman told the Tri-City Herald.

OSPI officials also told a Herald reporter that they were concerned about Diamond, and the game of musical chairs that seemed to follow its owners.

Back in Pierce County, Clyde Ogden felt like kicking himself. Against his better judgment, he'd gone to work for Probst again and quit again, this time for good.

Lured by the offer of easy money, he'd agreed to teach a few classes for Probst on weekends: traffic school for adults with speeding tickets, ordered into defensive driving courses by local judges.

Probst had promised Ogden a good rate: $40 per student. He didn't pay it. The checks were always lower. When Ogden complained, he kept getting the same answer.

"What's the matter?" Probst would say. "You don't trust me?"

2000: A FRIGHTENING FIRST TRIP

In March 2000, Daphne Jasinski surprised her daughter Yolanda with a present for her 15th birthday: enrollment at Diamond Driving School of Silverdale, owned by Gary Probst.

During an interview with The News Tribune several weeks ago, Jasinski recalled the experience and shared a copy of a letter she wrote to OSPI officials at the time. It tells an unsettling story.

Jasinski had shopped for local schools. Diamond suited her slim budget: $50 down, with installments to follow.

The price was right, but she thought her daughter's teacher, Bill Meyers, was a flake. He scheduled her first passenger session - observing another student driver - for April 16, then didn't show, then called to reschedule, then sent another student to pick her up.

An hour or so later, Yolanda called her mother from Highway 3. She was stranded. The transmission in the school car had died. Another teacher was coming to rescue them.

At home that night, Yolanda said Meyers told the girl who was driving to accelerate to 70 before the car died, to keep the transmission going. She also heard him brag about making the boy students crank it up to 90 on one stretch of the highway.

Jasinski thought that sounded strange, but let it go. Her daughter's classes would end soon. Her next school session, behind the wheel this time, was scheduled for noon on April 22, a Saturday.

That morning, Yolanda passed her final written exam and waited for Meyers to take her on her first drive.

He didn't come. Half an hour passed before Meyers called Jasinski. He was in Poulsbo driving some other students and said it was taking longer than expected.

He said he could pick up Yolanda at 1:30 and added that because of a cancellation, he could double up on her drive sessions and take her out at 4 p.m., too.

Jasinski agreed. At least her daughter would pick up extra drive time and get closer to her certificate.

She didn't know it, but state rules governing driver instruction prohibited cramming lessons together. Students weren't supposed to drive twice on the same day. They weren't supposed to take their final written exam until after all their drives were completed.

Yolanda met Meyers and a pair of female students at 1:30. Jasinski went home. Two hours later, her phone rang.

"Hello?"

"Hi Mom!" Yolanda said. "You're not gonna believe where I'm at! I'm on the freeway!"

"Are you driving?"

"Yeah! I'm doing 55 right now!"

It was her daughter's first school drive. She was 15, cruising down Highway 3 with the steering wheel in one hand and Meyers' cell phone in the other.

"Would you like to speak with him?" Yolanda asked.

"Oh yes, " Jasinski said.

Meyers got on the phone and cackled. Yolanda was doing great, he said.

"Say, she wants to go over the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, " he added. "Then we'll rest for a bit and drive back. Just thought we ought to call you."

Stunned, and thinking she shouldn't risk an angry reaction with her daughter in the car, Jasinski said, "Oh - OK."

She hung up in a daze, and began to think.

Like hell is it OK.

She called Meyers back and told a fast lie to avoid a confrontation: Yolanda's father was coming to visit at 4, and she needed her home as soon as possible.

Yolanda and Meyers showed up 45 minutes later.

Jasinski sent her daughter inside, then turned to Meyers. She asked him why he handed Yolanda a cell phone on the highway.

Meyers laughed. He said new state requirements were coming: Soon, students would be required to learn how to drive while talking on the phone.

"So that's what we teach, " he said.

Jasinski asked if that was the requirement now. Meyers said it wasn't. Jasinski said her daughter was never to do that again. Meyers laughed.

"You're scared, " he said. "This makes you scared, doesn't it?"

Jasinski stared.

"I can't begin to tell you how furious I am with you, " she said.

Meyers smirked.

"I believe you're furious, " he said. "If you want, you can take it up with my boss."

Two days after the incident, Jasinski pulled her daughter out of Diamond Driving School and wrote a five-page letter to OSPI describing the incident in detail. She felt Meyers had endangered her daughter's life.

The state replied with a complaint form. Weeks later, an investigator interviewed Jasinski, then sent her a summary.

As she read the document, Jasinski noticed many of the details were wrong. She envisioned months of back and forth corrections, decided it wasn't worth it and dropped the complaint.

Yolanda didn't seem to be interested in driving anymore. Two years passed before she got her license.

Meyers no longer works for Diamond Driving School. He said he and Gary Probst parted ways after a dispute over the purchase of a driving-school car.

In an interview, Meyers confirmed most of Jasinski's story, with minor corrections. He said he didn't tell her state requirements regarding driving with a cell phone were coming - only that he hoped they would come. He denied telling other students to go 90 miles per hour on Highway 3.

He admitted handing the cell phone to Yolanda, and said he insists that all his driving students handle cell phones.

"It should be taught, " he said. "Why are they trying to teach people how to drive without a cell phone? I mean come on, people - you've got to teach people how to multitask and which hand to hold the cell phone in."

Meyers says he also insists that his driving students take lessons at night. He praises Probst for having "the guts" to run driving schools that defy state bureaucracy.

"Gary enabled me to get out there and teach, " he said. "I've taught 10,000 students in 12 years. I was able to touch their lives because of Gary - he certainly made it easier for me."

LOBBYING FOR HIMSELF

While Probst wrestled with OSPI officials after the Richland school closure in 2000, state lawmakers were laying the groundwork for a change in state law that would make his business far easier.

Faced with growing budget deficits, the Legislature looked at driver's education and decided it was an expense schools could no longer afford. For the next two years, lawmakers would pare away funding, shifting the market to the private sector.

Probst saw it coming. Along with other commercial school owners, he also hoped to reduce OSPI's authority over instructors. The argument was easy: Why should two agencies regulate schools when one - the Department of Licensing - would do?

Probst wrote to Terry Bergeson, state superintendent of public instruction, complaining about OSPI's oversight and charging one of the agency's employees, Dave Kinnunen, with bias. He threatened a "public discrimination lawsuit, " though nothing came of it.

He formed a new organization: The Washington State Association of Commercial Driving Schools. Internet registration records show he created the group's Web site in 1999. Several Probst employees interviewed by state investigators described Probst as the brains of the organization.

Using the association's letterhead, he sent letters to instructors around the state, seeking their help with lobbying.

Aware of his reputation, he included a postscript:

"If you don't wish to contact me because you have heard bad things about me, let me ask you this, " he wrote. "If we share the same desire to make a certain change, don't you think we can put aside other differences and do something together that can really help everyone?"

For the next two years, he peppered state leaders with letters from his association, at one point boasting more than 100 members. The reality was less than a dozen - all of them Probst employees, according to state records of interviews with Probst's associates. Four former Diamond employees also told The News Tribune that the association was a small group of Probst's trusted partners.

FORGERY AND FALSE RECORDS

In the next few months, a series of standard forms arrived at OSPI and the DOL, submitted for state approval. They showed that Probst's schools were hiring and training new instructors.

Suspicious in the wake of the Richland incident, OSPI officials checked the names. They learned that some of the individuals didn't work for Probst and didn't know their names were being used.

Ted Foss, listed as an instructor on the forms, told officials he'd never worked for Probst or his schools. Another listed instructor, Matt Muxen, said the same thing. Carlene Gray, listed among those trained to become an instructor, told OSPI officials she never received such training.

On several forms, Clyde Ogden's name and signature appeared as a trainer of instructors, though he had stopped working for Probst a year earlier. Murray Taylor, who hadn't worked for Probst since 1997, was also listed as a trainer.

All five individuals told OSPI officials their names were being used falsely. All five repeated their statements in sworn affidavits sent to the state. Ogden's affidavit added one more complaint: He said his signature was being forged.

The record was growing more troublesome by the day. In July 2001, OSPI turned up the heat and started an investigation of Diamond and unprofessional conduct at the schools.

"The alleged activity may include forgery and falsifying state records, " officials noted.

For the next two years, Gary Probst would bob, weave, duck, dodge and finally escape.

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486
sean.robinson@thenewstribune.com

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