Special Reports

Investigation of driving-school empire digs up mysterious character

Bruce Hanify practices law, not metaphysics – but the Clallam County deputy prosecutor is out to prove a man doesn’t exist.

The man’s name: John Wilson – common as a cold, so ordinary it dissolves in a sea of soundalikes. There are 14 John Wilsons in the Tacoma phone book. A commercial database search of the name yields more than 1,000 hits in the state of Washington.

Hanify cares about only one of them – a man he says isn’t there.

“To the best of my knowledge from what I know so far, there is no John Wilson,” he said Wednesday.

If Hanify is right, he could win a forgery conviction against Spanaway resident Sean Probst, son of Gary Probst, Washington’s driving-school king. Charges against the younger Probst say he provided a phony document to a Clallam County court in 2003 to beat a speeding ticket. The certificate includes John Wilson’s signature.

The charges suggest Wilson is a phony identity the Probsts created to help their business.

Sean Probst denies the charges. The next step will come Friday, when his attorney, Judson Gray, argues that the case should be dismissed.

“We have not seen any evidence from the prosecutor in this case to support their claim,” Gray said. “All I have from the prosecutor in Sean Probst’s case is what amounts to hearsay, in my opinion.”

The seemingly minor case carries major implications for the beleaguered Probst franchise, already battling charges from the state Department of Licensing that could close 41 driving schools around the state.

A forgery conviction – a felony – could cost the younger Probst his driving instructor license. That would hinder a quiet succession: Gary Probst faces state charges that could suspend or revoke his school instructor and ownership licenses. State records show Sean Probst hopes to launch a successor franchise under a new name, using many of the same classrooms and locations leased by his father.

The state’s charges against the elder Probst have simmered for eight months, and now await an administrative hearing. The forgery case adds a complication: If neither father nor son has a license to teach driving, neither can recruit and train new instructors, and the task of extending the franchise becomes more difficult.

A single piece of paper

For driving instructors, speeding tickets are poison – state laws can trigger a license suspension if an instructor receives more than one in a single year or more than two in two years.

Before the Clallam stop, Sean Probst had received several tickets, and beaten them all, typically by hiring attorneys to argue that state troopers overlooked some detail in the ticketing process.

The technique didn’t work in Clallam, where a judge ordered Probst to pay a fine and attend a defensive driving course.

The county offered a local course, but Probst didn’t take it. Instead the court received a printed certificate on March 28, 2003, saying he had completed a course.

The certificate, a single piece of paper, is the key to the forgery case.

It is headed Traffic Safety Associates, and it states that Sean Probst completed a defensive driving course on March 1, 2003. The certificate includes the instructor’s signature: John Wilson.

Court officials didn’t know it at the time, but the certificate came from the Probst family business. Traffic Safety Associates was a Gary Probst operation, created at least three years earlier, according to Internet records.

And John Wilson? In sworn affidavits filed with the court, father and son say he’s real. They insist Sean Probst took a court-ordered defensive driving course from Wilson – a volunteer who had never taught defensive driving before, never taught it again and left the state a few months later.

In court documents, Sean Probst claims he took the defensive driving course from his father and John Wilson, and Wilson signed the certificate. A statement from Gary Probst says the same thing, but provides a bit more detail.

The driving-school king claims he was the senior instructor of the course, and Wilson was a volunteer teaching under his supervision – briefly.

“He was under my supervision because this was the first class he ever taught,” Probst’s statement reads.

It describes Wilson in vague terms, calling him “the spouse of a graduate student who was attending Pacific Lutheran University.”

The elder Probst adds he hired Wilson but collected no personal information from him. He says Wilson is now gone, and cannot be found.

“John Wilson left the state in mid-2003,” Probst’s statement reads. “As I had never met his spouse or knew anything about her or her course of study and since she did not have the same last name as he did (according to Mr. Wilson), I have not been able to trace him through PLU.”

‘Persons who do not actually exist’

Department of Licensing records show Wilson did more for the Probst empire than teach one class for one day. His name and signature appeared on Probst-linked documents for three years. The last dates to late 2004, more than a year after he supposedly left the state.

During that period, the records show, he lobbied lawmakers, demanded public records, signed money orders and threatened lawsuits. He claimed multiple titles: board director, board chairman, driving instructor, insurance agent.

Wilson communicated solely by mail, signing his name to letters sent from addresses used by Gary Probst: mail drops in Oregon and Olympia, and a home address in Lakewood.

Records show the Wilson name first reached state officials in January 2002, appearing on letters demanding public records related to driving schools.

Wilson called himself board chairman of the Northwest Traffic Safety Foundation, an organization created by Gary Probst in 2000, formally incorporated in 2003. Records from the secretary of state list Gary Probst and Sean Probst among the corporate directors, but Wilson’s name does not appear.

Wilson followed up with a similar request to the Department of Licensing in April 2002. The request caused a stir – at the time, the agency was investigating Gary Probst’s driving schools. The return address on Wilson’s letter was 9109 Veterans Drive in Lakewood, Gary Probst’s base of operations.

At first, the state denied the records request. Then someone hired attorney Greg Overstreet to press the issue. He wrote the Department of Licensing on May 13, 2002, reiterating the demand for records.

Eventually, the agency gave in, but not before licensing officials discussed their suspicions that Wilson wasn’t real. State attorneys analyzing the disclosure demands wrestled with an odd question: Do fictional people enjoy the same rights to public records as everyone else?

“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,” Assistant Attorney General James Schmid wrote in a May 20, 2002 memo. “We also briefly discussed whether there was a basis for an objection based on the possibility that no real ‘person’ actually requested the records, but decided that raises an uncertain legal issue which is not worth pursuing at this time.”

Overstreet, who now works for the Attorney General’s Office on public disclosure issues, won’t say who hired him, citing attorney-client privilege. He referred the question to his former law firm, Perkins Coie, and said he couldn’t give an answer without the client’s permission.

After the confrontation over public records, Wilson continued to write letters, though those who received them don’t recall speaking to him.

A state investigator requested records from the Northwest Traffic Safety Foundation on June 5, 2002. In a signed one-sentence reply dated June 11, 2002, Wilson refused the request.

In October 2002, a letter from Wilson to Moses Lake teacher Jeff Pope threatened legal action if Pope continued to publicly criticize Probst driving schools.

In January 2003, Wilson signed a letter to then-state Sen. Shirley Winsley, criticizing the Department of Licensing investigation of Probst’s schools.

In March 2003, Wilson, listing himself as an instructor, signed the defensive driving course certificate sent to Clallam County by Sean Probst.

Wilson resurfaces in 2004

Despite all that paperwork, Department of Licensing records show no driving instructors named John Wilson had an active teaching license at the time.

The only name that matched, J.D. Wilson of Federal Way, had retired from teaching several years earlier. The News Tribune interviewed him in 2005 – he said he’d never heard of Probst and never worked for him.

Documents filed in the Clallam forgery case by Sean Probst’s attorney say that doesn’t matter.

The attorney’s court brief notes the state licenses instructors who teach at driving schools, but not instructors who teach court-mandated defensive driving courses.

“The John Wilson who taught Mr. Probst’s class was solely a defensive driving instructor and was not certified by the state,” wrote Gray, Sean Probst’s attorney.

Is Wilson real? Bob Hall of Everett and Steve Kulin of Vancouver, Wash., worked for Gary Probst during the period when Wilson was sending letters to the state. Neither remembers meeting him.

“I never met John Wilson,” Kulin said. “I have no recollection other than hearing the name thrown around.”

After signing the defensive driving course certificate, Wilson stopped writing letters. Gary Probst’s signed statement to the Clallam County court offers a reason: Wilson left the state in mid-2003.

But another document with Wilson’s signature surfaced in November 2004. The document is an insurance certificate sent to the Port Townsend School District by Troy Stewart, who co-owns several driving schools with Gary Probst.

At the time, Stewart wanted to rent classroom space in the School District to teach teen drivers. The district asked for proof of liability insurance.

Stewart provided a certificate, which listed a $1 million liability limit, an insurance company address in Olympia and the insurance agent’s name and signature: John Wilson.

Public records from the Department of Licensing show the address was an Olympia mail drop used by Gary Probst. A Port Townsend School District official searched for the insurance company name in Olympia, but found nothing. The only business name that matched was J. Smith Lanier, an insurance company based in Atlanta, Ga.

David Crosby, an account manager for J. Smith Lanier, spoke to The News Tribune on Wednesday, and recalled his conversation with Port Townsend school officials in 2004.

Crosby told them the Georgia company insured Probst’s schools, but not from Olympia and not for $1 million, as the certificate suggested.

“This was strictly somebody falsifying a certificate of insurance,” Crosby said. “We did not issue that certificate.”

And John Wilson?

“We never have had anybody by that name working for us,” Crosby said.

After the conversation with school officials, Crosby said he called Gary Probst.

“We said, ‘What’s going on here?’” Crosby recalled. “I just remember him trying to dance around the issue. It seems like to me he said (Wilson) was an employee but he will not work here any longer if he’s gonna do this kind of stuff.”

After the talk with Probst, J. Smith Lanier dropped its insurance coverage of Probst’s schools, Crosby said.

Though Sean Probst’s attorney will argue John Wilson is real, he admits he’s never met the man – not that it matters.

“There would be no reason that I would meet him,” Gray said. “In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a John Wilson in my life. I’m sure there are many out there.”

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486