License to shill: Investigators unravel decade of deception

Staff writerJanuary 7, 2013 

Editor's note: This story was originally published on July 18, 2005.

Gary Probst commands an army of ghosts.

At the Washington driving-school king's bidding, they haunt his enemies and shield his friends.

They sign money orders and insurance forms. They lobby state lawmakers, lead obscure associations with long names and assist the dismissal of speeding tickets. They write letters, demand public records, hire lawyers and complain of racial discrimination. They steal identities, threaten critics, forge signatures and conjure controversy.

Sometimes they materialize and train teens to drive.

The ghosts have names: John Wilson. Owen Newton. Tim Furukawa. Lynn Wilson. Issac Robinson. Corbin Frost. In Probst's long-running war against the state, they are guerrilla soldiers - shock troops used to paralyze the forces of bureaucracy.

Some - Frost, for instance - are perfectly real, drafted without their knowledge or permission into Probst's service. Others leave no trace of their existence, other than mysterious autographs.

They appeared as state investigators surrounded Probst in late 2001 and 2002, chasing rumors of fraud, forgery and unlicensed teachers in his franchises: Diamond Driving, America's Best Driving and Quality Driving schools.

Two agencies - the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Department of Licensing - followed Probst's trail. Ultimately, the driving-school king eluded them, escaping discipline despite proof of his efforts to get around state law.

His employees and ex-partners weren't so lucky. While their boss thrived, they suffered. They received license suspensions, endured threats and smears, paid lawyers to fight Probst in court and wondered why the state didn't stop him.

'YOU CAN'T EVEN DRIVE A CAR'

Robert Hall, a driving instructor who began working for Probst in the fall of 2000 (and three years later, fought off a lawsuit by his ex-employer), was beginning to doubt the wisdom of his decision. It started when he took a ride in Probst's car.

"This is the worst adult driver I've ever been with in my life, and he runs a driving school, " Hall recalls. "I remember telling him, 'You can't even drive a car - you're on the cell phone, you're changing lanes, tailgating people - do you have any idea what this business is about?' "

As a former member of the Mukilteo School Board, Hall knew something about educational standards. He was appalled by the way Probst ran driving schools.

"From day one, he started telling me how to do everything wrong, " Hall says.

In early 2001, Probst invited his school instructors to a meeting at his home on Veterans Drive in Lakewood. Hall went, and left dismayed.

"I go down there, all I hear is a session on how to beat the rules of the state of Washington, " he says. "That was my last meeting."

THE FIRST GHOST

On Dec. 5, 2001, Corbin Frost's Washington driver's license expired. By law, that meant he couldn't train teen drivers in Washington - for Gary Probst or anyone else.

Frost, in his early 20s, spent three summers working at Probst's driving schools: 1999, 2000 and 2001. By December, he was back at Brigham Young University in Utah. He didn't bother to renew his license - he had no plans to return to Washington.

He didn't know he was a ghost.

Frost stayed on Diamond's books for two more years. School records show him teaching teen drivers all over the state, sometimes in two places at once. His name was used to certify students he never met.

In January 2002, a pair of ghosts demanded driving school-related public records from the state.

They had names and fancy titles: John Wilson and Tim Furukawa, board chairman and research director of the "Northwest Traffic Safety Foundation."

State officials had never heard of the foundation. They sent the records anyway, to the listed address at Veterans Drive in Lakewood - the home of Gary Probst.

The foundation has a Web site: www. ntsf.org. Internet registration records show Probst created it in 2000.

RACIAL ACCUSATIONS

In late January 2002, Probst learned his schools were being investigated by the state Department of Licensing.

As the regulators closed in, a ghost drifted to his aid.

Issac Robinson called himself the executive director of the Minority Driving School and Instructor Association. In a Feb. 19, 2002, letter to the DOL, he accused the department's Paula Peretti of racism.

"Ms. Paula Peretti is viewed by many of us in the driving school community as a person who is looking to keep as many minorities as she can out of driving schools, " Robinson wrote.

He added a stinger, asking to have a copy of the letter placed in Peretti's personnel file, "for review and consideration in future promotions."

Peretti was the DOL's drive-school overseer - the program manager with yes-or-no authority over school licenses and the enforcer of state regulations. That meant she was in Probst's way.

The letter was a shot across her bow. It was sent to her boss, DOL director Fred Stephens, who happened to be black. It forced a meeting with Peretti's superiors.

Issac Robinson wasn't listed in the DOL's database of driving instructors. No one at the agency had heard of the association he claimed to lead, and it wasn't registered with the state.

His letter gave a Spanaway address. It matched the location of a Diamond Driving School registered to Cameron Probst, Gary Probst's youngest son.

A few weeks later, Cameron Probst told a DOL official that Robinson was just a friend of his, not a driving instructor, and not the director of an association as far as he knew.

ANGRY PARENTS

At the same time, complaints about Diamond poured in from every corner of the state: In Seattle, Port Orchard, Bellingham and Everett, parents complained of late-arriving teachers and disorganized instruction.

"The classroom is in chaos, " Shelton parent Ron Cochran said in a letter to the DOL about America's Best.

Clyde Ogden, a Midland resident and one of Probst's chief adversaries, was one of the loudest critics. He had stopped working for Probst in 2000, but his name and signature kept appearing on Diamond documents, listed as a trainer of other teachers. Probst had even renewed Ogden's teaching certificate without his knowledge.

Ogden complained to Peretti regularly. He sent an affidavit to the state, attaching sworn statements from other instructors who said Diamond had used their names falsely.

Jeff Pope, a high school teacher from Moses Lake who also taught at a local driving school, forwarded several complaints to the state, and noted that one student he knew had been in a crash.

"I don't like kids I know, teach and see every day getting in crashes because they were cheated and ripped off in Traffic Safety. It will be a travesty if it continues, " he wrote.

A few weeks later, Pope got a letter from a ghost.

The letterhead said Northwest Traffic Safety Foundation and listed an address in Portland. It was a mail drop in a shopping center, used occasionally by Gary Probst, but Pope didn't know it.

The writer said that 17 complaints had been lodged against Pope regarding his activities at Moses Lake High School and his criticisms of Diamond. He added that his foundation was giving Diamond a $10,000 grant to pursue a possible lawsuit against Pope.

The writer closed with his signature: John Wilson.

'PERSONS WHO DO NOT ACTUALLY EXIST'

In April, the ghosts struck again. John Wilson and his mysterious partner, Tim Furukawa, sent a new records request to DOL. They wanted records of all driving school inspections for the last five years.

At first, the DOL denied the request. At that point, John Wilson - or someone - hired an attorney to press for the records.

Faced with the threat of a lawsuit, DOL sought legal help. In a memo, Assistant Attorney General James Schmid discussed the apparent link between Probst and the ghosts using his address.

"The disclosure request at issue was . . . signed by two individuals who are not recognized and may be false names for persons who do not actually exist, " Schmid wrote. He went on to say that the DOL probably had to surrender the records in question.

The DOL released the documents. The state officially believed in ghosts.

John Wilson wrote more letters in the months to come, including a plea to then-state Sen. Shirley Winsley (R-Lakewood), complaining about DOL's scrutiny. He charged the agency with discrimination.

'THIS IS A RACE ISSUE'

On May 6, 2002, a state trooper pulled over Sean Probst, Gary Probst's oldest son, and wrote him a speeding ticket. Probst contested, requested a hearing, demanded evidence and beat it.

A week later, the DOL's Paula Peretti and a state schools official spent two days inspecting a pair of driving schools: America's Best of Shelton and Lacey.

An ownership change triggered the scrutiny. Sean Probst, who owned several schools, was selling the Shelton and Lacey sites to Jacob Muai, an associate of the Probst clan. A new owner required a new inspection.

To Peretti's surprise, Gary Probst showed up at the Shelton inspection. He dropped a few names, including state Sen. Rosa Franklin of Tacoma. Peretti wrote a description of the incident in a note preserved in state records.

Probst claimed Franklin wanted to attend the inspection, but he had told her it wasn't necessary. However, he added, he would make sure Franklin was represented at the Lacey inspection later in the week.

"This is a race issue, " he said. He didn't have to state what the inspectors already knew: Franklin was black.

Two days later, Peretti went to Lacey. Again, Probst appeared - but this time he brought someone with him.

He was a young black man. Probst introduced him as "Lynn Wilson, " and said he was a member of the Tacoma NAACP who worked for Sen. Franklin.

Peretti and the other inspector gave the man their business cards, and waited for him to provide his own.

He said he didn't have any. They asked for a phone number. He gave them one.

After a few uncertain moments, Peretti started the inspection.

"Well, we need to get going, " said Probst. He and the man left.

Later, the other inspector called the number the man had given. No one there knew who Lynn Wilson was. A call to Franklin's office got the same result.

Lynn Wilson was another ghost.

He wasn't a member of the Tacoma NAACP. His name doesn't appear in the last five years of membership lists, according to Carl Brown, the group's record-keeper.

He didn't work for Franklin. Responding to questions from The News Tribune, the senator said she's never had an employee named Lynn Wilson and never met Gary Probst.

"This is all news to me, " she said. "He is saying things that are untrue, that I don't even know about. He needs to tell the truth. He's lying."

Probst wasn't done with Peretti. Two weeks after the Lacey inspection, he sent a letter to her boss, Peter Teets. In four single-spaced pages, Probst accused Peretti of mismanagement and bigotry.

He used the letterhead of one of his front groups: the Washington State Association of Commercial Driving Schools, an organization he'd created three years earlier. He attached 17 signatures in two columns, including his own, those of his two sons and others from Diamond managers. Each included a phone number.

All the names belonged to state-certified driving instructors except one: the last signature at the bottom of the last column.

The name was Damon Zollinger. His phone number rang at Diamond Driving School of Mountlake Terrace.

He was another ghost, but the state didn't know it yet.

CASHEW CHICKEN

In May, DOL's investigation of Diamond shifted into overdrive. The assigned investigator was Renee Rouleau.

She was a former real estate auditor who had joined the DOL in 1996. For the next year, she would crisscross the state, interviewing hundreds of teens and parents, prying information from Probst's associates.

As she dug into the case, Rouleau found a complete mess: Diamond and its subsidiaries overflowed with unlicensed instructors. Rouleau found evidence of at least 25 teachers who hadn't been certified and hints of more.

For hundreds of Diamond students throughout the state, records were incomplete or fraudulent. Some had two graduation certificates when only one was required. Some had none at all.

Many more records were missing. Probst and his allies either refused to release them or claimed they were stolen. (At one point, Probst sent a letter to the DOL accusing Rouleau of stealing the records.)

Former Diamond employees told her Probst had ordered them to falsify student drive sheets.

One employee, Patti Shuler, told a story of Probst recruiting a student driver to lie during a state inspection. Probst was angry, Shuler explained, because the student had nearly blown his cover. Probst had said the student needed to be trained "to lie better, " Shuler said.

Rouleau interviewed several students who had attended Mountlake and been taught by David Sedelmeier, another Probst associate. In classes, he called himself "Diamond Dave."

"I don't remember the first drive all too well, " a student named Duane Keu told her. "I just remember driving him to the Oriental Dragon to get lunch - cashew chicken and a Coke."

Students told Rouleau they often drove for only 15 to 20 minutes with Sedelmeier, instead of the required hour. He talked on his cell phone all the time. He showed them movies, including "Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke."

One classroom lecture was called "How to Beat a Ticket, " several students said. Sedelemeier told them it was fine to park in a disabled space as long as the motor was running.

One student called the classes a joke and said she didn't learn anything at all. Another said she failed her state driver license test the first time she took it. She blamed the teaching she got at Diamond.

In case after case, Rouleau found evidence that Probst controlled the schools, though he was not listed as an owner - a violation of state law. Many school managers admitted that they paid him 15 to 20 percent of their gross revenue. Rouleau found 17 such arrangements.

Probst held the building leases. He owned the phone numbers and controlled the advertising. He owned all the cars, and the insurance policies were in his name.

With that leverage, he could shut down a school whenever he wished.

The arrangements had been concealed from the DOL. As she assembled her findings, Rouleau wrote the word "fraud" repeatedly.

THE GHOST TEACHER

On June 4, 2002, a fax arrived at DOL offices. It came from David Sedelmeier, who said the Diamond school in Mountlake Terrace was being sold.

A week later, Peretti called Mountlake to gather more information.

A ghost answered the phone.

"Who am I speaking to?" Peretti asked.

"Corbin, " the voice said.

"Corbin who?"

"Corbin Frost."

Peretti identified herself. She was looking for the owner of the school. Who would that be?

The voice replied that he couldn't give that information, and said the owner told him to take the names and numbers of people who called.

"He's in Hawaii, " the voice added.

"Who is it?" Peretti asked.

The voice said he couldn't tell her.

Peretti said she had a right to know. The state had received notice that the school had been sold.

The voice said he'd get a message to the owner.

Peretti had one more question.

"Are you teaching at this location?" she asked.

"Yes, " the voice said.

At that point, the real Corbin Frost hadn't been in Washington for almost a year.

'I had nothing'

On June 16, 2002, a state trooper pulled over Sean Probst on Interstate 5 in Pierce County and wrote him a speeding ticket. The trooper clocked him at 77 mph. Probst contested, requested a hearing and evidence and beat the ticket.

Around the same time, Gary Probst hired a new employee.

Tyler Pincock was 24, with a young wife and family. He'd just lost his job, and he'd heard through his church that Probst paid $20 per hour. He later described his experience to state investigators.

"You're in the right place at the right time, " Probst said when he met Pincock, then he put him to work at the Diamond school in Puyallup.

Pincock couldn't believe his luck.

"I was in such a pinch, in such a bind, " he recalls. "I had nothing."

The job seemed simple. Probst explained how to teach, what had to be done, and said he'd take care of the paperwork.

After a few months, Pincock was worried again. Probst's son Sean was telling him not to sign the drive sheets. Instead, Sean signed them.

They were helping him, Pincock thought. They were paying him. But it felt wrong.

TRACKING CORBIN FROST

Sifting Diamond's records, Rouleau found Corbin Frost's name again and again: Enumclaw, Lakewood, Everett, Mountlake, sometimes in two locations at the same time. His listed schedule was physically impossible.

In vain, she tried to reach him. He was everywhere and nowhere.

Robert Hall, Probst's disgruntled partner in Everett, filled in some gaps. He told Rouleau that a friend of Gary's had been teaching at Mountlake without a license.

His name was Damon, a friend of Sean Probst's from Hawaii. Hall said he had asked Gary Probst about Damon and demanded to know whether he had a teaching certificate.

"He has a driver's license, " Probst had replied.

Hall pressed. Probst told him Damon would have his state certification in two weeks.

Hall then told Probst that he had already seen Damon teaching. Cornered, Probst blamed David Sedelmeier, manager of Mountlake, for allowing it.

When Rouleau interviewed Sedelmeier later that summer, she heard a different story. Sedelmeier said Probst had taken control of Mountlake, and forced Damon into the mix, describing him as the new school owner.

But Damon called himself "Corbin Frost, " signing drive sheets with that name and answering the phone with it.

Suspicious, Sedelmeier had checked the new teacher's wallet when no one was watching. He found a driver's license and a name: Damon Zollinger.

Rouleau scrawled a triumphant sentence in her handwritten notes:

Damon Zollinger is Corbin Frost.

Half the deception was clear - but she wouldn't know the full story until she talked to the real Frost. On Oct. 3, 2002, she found him in Utah.

On the phone, Frost told her he hadn't been in Washington since summer 2001. He hadn't taught anyone at the schools Rouleau described.

A PARTNERSHIP ENDS

In September, Probst sued a partner for the third time.

Robert Hall, the former Mukilteo School Board member, had broken with Probst over the summer after learning about the DOL's investigation. He had opened his own outfit: Sno-King Driving School of Everett.

Probst claimed Hall had broken the noncompete agreement. Hall retorted that Probst had broken the contract first, by running schools that violated state law.

Eventually, Probst testified in the suit - first in a bizarre deposition, then in a cross-examination that cost him the case and led to a settlement on Hall's terms.

CLASH IN VANCOUVER

A big target of Rouleau's investigation was the Diamond school in Vancouver, Wash. The owner was Steve Kulin, who had started working for Probst several years earlier.

When Kulin received the DOL's demand for student records, his first reaction was, "Holy crap." Then he hired an attorney.

In his mind, he owned the school - almost. Probst had promised to sell it to him, though Kulin was still paying him a portion of the gross.

DOL officials shocked him, saying he was violating the law by not disclosing Probst's interest. Desperate, Kulin asked Probst to transfer the lease, giving him control of the school. Probst refused and instead asked for all the student records.

More than 200 active students at the Vancouver school hadn't finished their training. Kulin had a decision to make.

On Nov. 13, 2002, he shut down the school.

"My goal at that time was to get away from Gary and to keep my license, keep my career, " he says.

A miniature media storm followed. Vancouver's newspaper, The Columbian, published stories about the sudden closure. Television and radio stations followed with their own reports.

The stories made Kulin look like a villain, but he was working with the DOL, devising a plan to help the students finish their classes.

Probst, whose name had also appeared in the news reports, held community meetings in Vancouver. Faced with crowds of angry parents, public scrutiny and mounting pressure from the state, he started a smear campaign.

In media interviews, e-mails and Internet postings aimed at local families, he accused Kulin of using unlicensed instructors, operating illegally and taking parents' money. He claimed Kulin was filing for bankruptcy. (Kulin says he's never filed for bankruptc y. The News Tribune checked bankruptcy court records in Washington and the United States, and found no record of a filing.)

Probst published Kulin's home phone number and home address on the Internet and urged parents to call the law.

"You need to bring charges against him for fraud, " he wrote. "Contact your local sheriff to do this."

In the same message, he referred parents to a new driving school in Vancouver called America's Best, with "fully licensed instructors, " where students could complete their training at no extra cost.

However, it wasn't open yet, because it still needed state approval, which normally took a few months. He urged parents to tell the DOL to hurry up so the school could open.

Probst didn't mention that his son Sean owned the school. The application had been filed a month earlier.

Kulin's phone started ringing. Angry parents came to his door to berate him. One evening, a brick crashed through his window.

He salvaged what he could. With permission from the state, he reopened a month later, long enough to finish training for the students affected by the closing.

He kept cooperating with the DOL, providing all the information he had about Probst's involvement. He agreed to a settlement. His license was suspended for six months.

Against Probst, DOL took no action.

HOW TO BEAT A TICKET

A few weeks after the Vancouver shutdown, a state trooper stopped Gary Probst on I-5 in Pierce County and cited him for speeding. He contested the ticket, demanded a hearing and convinced a judge to dismiss the charge.

For driving instructors, a traffic ticket can spell a suspended license. State laws can trigger a suspension if an instructor receives more than one in a single year, or more than two in two years.

The ticket-beating technique is basic: Demand a hearing and hire a lawyer to poke holes in the evidence. One mistake is usually enough for a win: Maybe the ticket doesn't explicitly say the driver was operating the car. Maybe a signature from a radar expert is missing.

Probst knows the drill - so does his son Sean. Together, they've earned 11 citations in the last three years, chiefly for speeding. Gary Probst got three of the tickets. Sean Probst got the rest. To date, they've beaten all of them.

To buttress the standard methods, Gary Probst has added a wrinkle. In 2003 and 2004, when state troopers popped him for speeding, he handed them his Oregon driver's license - meaning the tickets wouldn't show up on his Washington driving record.

Court records show the Oregon license had a 2005 expiration date. Probst also has a Washington driver's license - it expires in 2006.

Carrying two licenses violates the laws of both states. In the assembly line of lower courts, no one noticed.

'NOPE, NEVER MET HIM'

In January 2003, a state trooper stopped Sean Probst in Clallam County and cited him for speeding: 71 in a 60. As usual, he contested the ticket and asked for a hearing.

A local judge agreed to a deferred finding: If Probst paid a fine and took a court-mandated defensive driving course, the ticket would vanish.

On March 28, 2003, the court received a printed certificate from Sean Probst. It said he had completed a defensive driving course, supervised by an instructor.

The case was closed, the charge dismissed, and no one at the court spotted the con. The certificate was bogus.

It was headed "Traffic Safety Associates" - an organization created by Sean's father, Gary Probst. Small print beneath the heading said "Washington State License #29, " which looked official, but meant nothing: The state doesn't license court-mandated driving courses.

However, "029" is the DOL license number for several branches of Diamond Driving School.

The bottom right corner of the certificate included the instructor's looping signature: John Wilson.

Plenty of John Wilsons live in Washington, but only one appears in DOL records. His driving instructor license expired in 1999.

J.D. Wilson, 64, lives in Federal Way. He once taught driver's ed in the Lake Washington School District, but he's retired now. Mindful of his common name, he goes by his initials. He says he only signs his full name on mortgages.

He doesn't teach anymore and hasn't for years. He's sure he didn't teach a defensive driving course to Sean Probst in 2003. He's equally sure that he never worked for Traffic Safety Associates and never met Gary Probst.

"Nope, never did, " he says. "Shifty guy, sounds like."

'Is that a threat?'

In March, Probst and the DOL's Peretti clashed again. This time, things got personal. Peretti recounted their phone conversation in a memo that appears in state records.

Probst wanted new school graduation certificates from the DOL - the coin of the realm for driving schools, state-mandated proof of completing a traffic safety course. When students took their state licensing tests, the certificates, each labeled with a unique number, came with them.

During the investigation, Rouleau and Peretti had found hundreds of certificates in the wrong places, in Diamond schools that hadn't requested them - another rule violation.

Originally, they had been sent to Probst and assigned to his Lakewood school. Now he wanted more.

"You received over 300, but you gave them away to other schools?" Peretti asked.

"I don't know, " Probst said. "I don't remember what I did with all the certificates. I may have given them to other schools."

Again, Probst pushed for the certificates. He said he was starting a pilot project for low-income students at a new location. Peretti told him the site would have to be inspected.

"No, I don't have to be inspected first - read the law, " Probst said.

"Yes you do, " said Peretti. "The policy is that you cannot conduct any classes until inspected."

"Policy - what policy?" Probst scoffed. "Just because you have meetings and set policy without any input from anybody does not mean we have to follow it.

"Paula, all you have to do is give me my certificates, and I'll just go on doing things. But if you don't, I will be making things difficult."

"Is that a threat?"

"No, that's not a threat, " Probst said. "I mean I'll be around here for a long time. I'll be here long after you get transferred, promoted or whatever will happen to you."

A week after that conversation, Probst sent a note to the DOL and an application to renew Corbin Frost's teaching certificate.

Probst got a terse reply from Peretti: request denied.

STORYTELLER

Probst's breach-of-contract suit against Robert Hall was beginning to move. On June 30, 2003, the driving-school king appeared for a deposition. In sworn testimony over a day and a half, he told a series of tall tales.

He said the military exonerated him after an appeal of his 1990 conviction for lying, and he had received an honorable discharge. Both claims were false, according to military court records obtained by The News Tribune.

He said he wasn't getting paid by other schools - but he was, according to his own contracted allies, who had explained the arrangements to Rouleau.

He said Rouleau had spoken with 400 Diamond students in her investigation and found none taught by Damon Zollinger. State records show Rouleau had spoken with seven students - all said Zollinger taught them, and the records she had gathered suggested there were more.

Probst claimed he was a volunteer chaplain with the Pierce County Sheriff's office who ministered to inmates.

Ed Troyer, Pierce County Sheriff's Department spokesman, said Probst isn't listed in the ranks of volunteer chaplains. He filed an application once, but nothing more. Those who run the chaplain's program say Probst never showed up, Troyer said.

NO MONEY TO KEEP DIGGING

The Diamond investigation was growing by the day. Rouleau and Peretti had worked for more than a year, accumulating scores of examples of what they considered fraud, deceit and deliberate efforts to circumvent state law.

Probst fought them at every turn, threatening, taunting and smearing. He wrote letters to their superiors and other state officials, accusing the two women of bias, racism, even theft. He filed a damage claim against the state, naming both of them in a threatened lawsuit. He aimed for the throat: their integrity and their careers.

Rouleau and Peretti endured, believing in the evidence, in what they had heard and seen with their own eyes.

Then, without warning, they were squelched.

At a meeting in June 2003, DOL's assistant director, Denise Movius, told them the Diamond investigation had to stop. The agency couldn't pay for it. The evidence they had gathered would go to the attorney general for review.

A few days later, Peretti signed and sent a series of letters to Diamond instructors.

The letters said the state's investigation was over. Though the state had discovered evidence to prove numerous violations, the record showed they occurred before the DOL gained regulatory authority over driving schools.

Not all the instructors escaped discipline. A dozen or so license suspensions followed in the months to come, but the biggest punishments fell on the smallest fish.

Against Gary Probst, architect of a scheme to hide his control of dozens of driving schools, the DOL took no action.

'YOU STOLE MY NAME'

Probst knew he was free. At a church softball game in July 2003, he gloated to a bitter enemy, and landed in court once more.

It was a sunny day at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, an oasis of calm halfway between Probst's Lakewood home base and the Olympia regulators.

Clyde Ogden, also a church member, walked to a water fountain to get a drink, then changed his mind when he saw Probst sitting nearby with his wife.

Ogden walked back, aiming for his own spot on the other side of the field. A familiar voice stopped him.

"Hey Clyde - wait up, " Probst said.

Ogden turned. Probst, six inches taller and 100 pounds heavier, was uncomfortably close.

"How are things going?" he said pleasantly.

Ogden's heart jangled. He muttered a few polite words.

Probst smiled. He said he'd gotten a letter from the state. The investigation was over. His schools were doing well.

"You're a liar, " Ogden said.

For three years, Ogden had warned the state about Probst. He had provided examples of his name forged on Diamond documents, and the names of others, complete with sworn affidavits. He had given Rouleau and other investigators detailed descriptions of Probst's methods.

Probst had listed Ogden as an employee though Ogden no longer worked for him, and tried to renew his instructor license without his knowledge. He had sued Ogden's son-in-law, Robert Sheridan, and attacked their reputations.

Looking back at the moment, Ogden admits he lost it.

"You son of a bitch, " he said. "You stole my name."

Probst said nothing. Ogden was trembling.

"You are the most despicable person I have ever known!"

Hearing the argument, Probst's sons, Sean and Cameron, rushed over. They surrounded Ogden and began shouting at him.

"Why are you doing this to us?" Sean said.

What happened next is disputed in court records. Ogden says he raised his hands to keep the men from getting too close. Sean Probst says Ogden pushed him.

One witness, Sean Probst's future wife, supported her fiancé's version of the story. Another witness, Jonathan Tuck, said Ogden was trying to leave and the three men were blocking his path, yelling obscenities.

Tuck stepped in and led Ogden away. He noticed the older man was shaking.

The lawsuit that followed spawned mutual restraining orders.

'BE QUIET'

Though he'd beaten the DOL, Prosbt was forced to settle his lawsuit against Robert Hall in September, on terms that favored his ex-partner.

The crusher came during the driving-school king's testimony. Probst admitted he didn't always enforce his noncompete agreements.

Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Joseph Thibodeau stopped the questioning and turned to Probst.

Wasn't that what this whole suit was about? Did Probst expect the court to strong-arm one contract while he ignored another?

"You want me to enforce a noncompete clause that you unilaterally violated, " the judge said.

Without waiting for an answer, Thibodeau rose from his chair. He was stocky, with a bald head. His face was red.

"When he stood up, it was one of the great moments in my life, " Hall recalls.

"I'm going to declare a recess, " Thibodeau said. "You need to talk settlement."

Probst spoke up.

"Your honor - " he began.

"Be quiet, " said the judge, and left a few moments later.

Within an hour, Hall had a settlement.

A NEW FRANCHISE

Probst barely broke stride. He created a new pair of Web sites. One promoted Traffic Safety Associates, where he pitched defensive driving courses for adults with traffic tickets.

The other was for Quality Driving School, the newest of his franchise names. Before long, he listed seven school locations on the Web site. Then 10. Then 12.

On Oct. 7, 2003, a state trooper pulled Sean Probst over on I-5 in Pierce County and cited him for speeding. The trooper clocked him at 75 mph - 15 over the limit. Probst contested, requested a hearing and beat the ticket.

'A stupid run-around game'

Two weeks later, Gary Probst sat down for a private conference with Tyler Pincock, who was facing a possible suspension from the DOL for teaching drivers without certification. Pincock later described the meeting in a statement to state investigators:

Probst explained that the state's investigation was part of "a stupid run-around game, " but it wasn't going to work.

"They've been after me for four years, and they've gotten nowhere, " he said.

He had a plan for Pincock's case. A couple of students had told the DOL they had driven with Pincock before he was certified.

That was no problem, Probst said - he could change the dates on the forms.

Pincock didn't say what he was thinking: How low can you go?

Probst kept talking. He would hire an attorney, and Pincock wouldn't have to pay for it - he could sit back and enjoy the ride.

But there was one more thing: This conversation was not to leave the room, Probst said. If it did, if Pincock double-crossed him, vengeance would follow.

On Oct. 31, 2003, a state trooper in Pierce County pulled Sean Probst over on I-5 and wrote him a ticket for driving in the car-pool lane. He beat it.

'JUST LEAVE IT BLANK'

At a DOL settlement conference in December 2003, Tyler Pincock described his experiences with Probst.

He said he trusted Probst and his son Sean at first, assuming they were telling him the truth when they said they would take care of him. He said they had reneged on promises of salary increases and overtime pay.

He had seen Probst's daughter Malia teaching students without certification. He had done the same thing himself, under orders from Gary and Sean Probst.

"Sean Probst informed me that I was not to fill my name in the 'instructor' space on the drive evaluation sheets, " Pincock stated. " 'Just leave it blank, ' were his exact words."

He said Gary and Sean Probst offered him a bribe to steal the state's test for driving instructors. Pincock could take a tape recorder to the exam, and speak the questions and answers into a microphone. For that, Probst would pay him a $100 bonus.

Pincock's statement closed with shouted capital letters:

"IF YOU COULD GET MY OVERTIME PAY, I WOULD DONATE HALF OF IT TO THE DEPARTMENT OF LICENSING JUST FOR PUTTING THIS MAN AND EVERYONE WILLINGLY ASSOCIATED WITH HIM AWAY, " he said.

After the hearing, Pincock went home, pulled his nameplate from his front porch, closed his door and shuttered his blinds.

The DOL gave Pincock a mild penalty: a 30-day stay - if he had no additional violations, he could continue to teach.

ESCAPE

More suspensions followed in 2004, as the DOL slowly unraveled the threads of the Diamond investigations. Eventually, 23 instructors and driving school managers received varying sanctions.

Gary Probst was not among them.

Though the driving-school king escaped DOL discipline, he did get another speeding ticket in early May. A state trooper cited him for going 85 on eastbound Highway 512. Probst handed the trooper his Oregon driver's license. Later, he contested the ticket and beat it.

On May 6, 2004, Paula Peretti left the DOL and took a job with another state agency. The salary was lower, but so was the stress.

Probst's prophecy, uttered more than a year earlier, came true: Peretti was gone, and he was still around.

When reached by The News Tribune, Peretti would not comment for this story.

In February of this year, Everett residents got a piece of junk mail: a promotional postcard for the local Diamond Driving School.

"We have been rated as the #1 Drive School in the Everett, WA area by the Northwest Traffic Safety Foundation, " it read.

On March 11, 2005, a state trooper pulled Sean Probst over in Pierce County and wrote him a ticket for a seat belt violation. Probst contested it.

Gary Probst no longer holds two driver's licenses, according to the DOL. After The News Tribune raised questions in late March, Washington licensing officials called their counterparts in Oregon. The Oregon license was canceled.

On June 30, the DOL suspended Sean Probst's license to operate a driving school in Puyallup, and ordered him to relinquish his interest in other driving schools. However, the state did not suspend his instructor license.

EPILOGUE

Shortly before noon on May 26, 2005, Sean Probst scorched southbound I-5 near Lakewood. He curled around a car and hit the gas.

A state trooper hovering near the Bridgeport Way exit spotted the maneuver, aimed a radar gun and checked the readout: 87 mph. He gunned the engine and flipped on his lights.

On the shoulder of the freeway, the trooper walked up to the driver, who offered an excuse.

"I was just trying to get around that car, " Probst said.

The trooper replied that he took a radar reading after the pass. He handed Probst a flimsy piece of green paper: his eighth ticket in three years. The fine was $224.

Probst contested. The hearing was held July 7 in Pierce County District Court. It combined his March seat belt violation and the May 26 speeding ticket.

Probst waived his appearance and sent his lawyer, Steve Shuman, to argue for him.

No prosecutor appeared, but that was normal for traffic court, where verdicts are swift and arguments brief.

First, Shuman tackled the seat belt infraction. The ticket didn't say his client was driving the car. Pro tem Judge Claire Sussman agreed, and dismissed it.

Next came the speeding ticket. Shuman said there was no proof that a qualified expert tested the radar gun.

Sussman agreed and dismissed the ticket. The hearing took less than five minutes.

On Monday, July 11, The News Tribune called Gary Probst and offered him a chance to read this story. He said he didn't want to be interviewed.

"I don't want to be sideswiped, " he said. "I've been sideswiped before."

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

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