Special Reports

Judge OKs Probst’s guilty plea this time

Gary Probst whiffed his first guilty plea to first-degree theft. Thursday, Washington’s deposed drive-school king tried again and succeeded.

The Midland resident signed a plea-bargain agreement that obliges him to pay more than $14,000 in sales taxes, plus fines and court costs. He also faces possible jail time.

But the theft conviction puts a felony on his record, officially barring him from teaching driving or owning a driving school for the next decade. Last year, the state forced him to close and sell his 41 driving schools around the state.

Wednesday, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Richard Strophy accepted the agreement he’d rejected two weeks earlier.

In a Jan. 25 hearing, the judge suggested Probst was admitting to the wrong crime. Dodging sales taxes on cars bought for driving schools was tax evasion, not theft, Strophy said then. He wanted more legal analysis before he would accept the guilty plea.

Assistant attorney general Scott Marlow and Rick Klessig, Probst’s attorney, provided it. Marlow explained that the statute of limitations on a tax evasion charge had passed, but the time frame for a theft charge was still active.

Marlow also cited a 1984 Washington State Supreme Court ruling that touches on plea bargains. It allows a defendant to plead guilty to a crime even if the underlying facts don’t precisely match.

Strophy turned to Probst and asked him about the plea agreement, which protected him from prosecution on other potential charges, including forgery, perjury and filing fraudulent documents.

“You’re still willing to plead to this charge even though the facts might not quite fit it?” Strophy asked.

“Yes, your honor,” Probst said.

“In order not to be prosecuted on any other charges?”

“Yes, your honor.”

Probst’s signed statement in the agreement included more explicit details of his scheme. Between 2001 and 2005, he bought 16 cars in Oregon, falsely claiming to be a resident using a driver’s license obtained under false pretenses, along with an Oregon state fishing license.

“At all times relevant to these crimes I was in fact a resident of Washington State,” his statement reads.

Probst titled his cars in Oregon, avoiding Washington’s sales tax. After 90 days, when the sales tax was no longer applicable, he re-titled each vehicle in Washington.

“I took these actions with the intent to deprive the Washington State Department of Revenue of the funds lawfully owed,” his statement reads.

Probst was released on his own recognizance. His sentencing is set for next Thursday. The plea agreement he signed includes a sentencing recommendation of up to 90 days in jail, but Strophy has the final say.