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Trial opens for California skydiving instructor accused of fraud. What his lawyer said

Robert Pooley was dishonest when he taught courses at a skydiving center near Lodi. But his dishonesty was not intended to mislead his students, one of his lawyers said Thursday.

It was intended to deceive the organization that licenses skydivers, the United States Parachute Association.

“Rob Pooley is not accused of defrauding the skydiving association,” federal public defender Meghan McLoughlin said during opening arguments in Pooley’s trial on wire fraud and aggravated identity theft charges. “He is accused of defrauding these candidates.”

Prosecutors allege that Pooley in 2016 falsely led students to believe they could obtain the necessary certifications to lead tandem jumps by taking courses at the Parachute Center in Acampo. Pooley’s teaching credentials were suspended at the time and he could not certify students himself.

He normally taught with another instructor. But when the other teacher, Yuri Garmashov, left the country for a few months, prosecutors say Pooley ran the courses alone. They accuse Pooley of signing off on student training during that time using forms pre-filled with Garmashov’s signature.

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McLoughlin did not dispute that Pooley used the pre-signed forms.

“The candidates knew what was going on,” she said. “They knew the deal.”

Federal prosecutor Dhruv Sharma told jurors a different story during his opening arguments. Students trusted Pooley to get the certifications they needed, he said, and would testify to that at trial.

‘He made promises he wasn’t allowed to make. And he did it to line his own pockets.”

Pooley looked on stoically as he sat next to his lawyers.

The forged paperwork at the heart of the case was discovered after the death of Yong Kwon, one of the students Pooley taught while Garmashov was out of the country.

Kwon, 25, led a tandem jump with Tyler Turner on August 6, 2016. Turner, 18, was skydiving for the first time and had gone downtown with friends.

Kwon had problems with the main and reserve parachutes during the jump. And he and Turner plunged into a nearby vineyard. They are just two of at least 28 people who have died at the Parachute Center since 1985, according to an investigation by The Sacramento Bee.

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Pooley wrote a letter to the parachute association after Kwon’s death. It said Garmashov was unaware that Pooley had completed the paperwork with Garmashov’s signature. And that Garmashov had done nothing wrong.

“I am making this statement freely, without being pressured by threats or promises of anything in return,” Pooley wrote.

His attorneys allege in the lawsuits that Pooley told someone at the association that he had been coerced into signing the letter. And McLoughlin told jurors that Garmashov knew Pooley used his signature while he was abroad.

She asked them to think about Garmashov’s motive to portray himself in a good light after the incident. Garmashov has not been charged with any crimes related to the case.

Prosecutors charged Pooley in 2021.

U.S. District Court Judge William Shubb told prosecutors they could not mention Kwon’s death in their opening statements for fear it could sway jurors since Pooley is not accused of causing it.

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Sharma complied with the order without incident. And prosecutors then called their first witness.

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