Trial opens for California skydiving instructor charged with fraud. What his attorney said

Robert Pooley wasn’t truthful when he was teaching courses at a skydiving center near Lodi. But his dishonesty wasn’t meant to mislead his students, one of his defense attorneys said Thursday.

It was meant to trick the organization that licenses skydivers, the United States Parachute Association.

“Rob Pooley is not charged with defrauding the parachute association,” federal public defender Meghan McLoughlin said during opening arguments of Pooley’s trial for wire fraud and aggravated identify theft. “He is charged with defrauding these candidates.”

Prosecutors claim Pooley in 2016 falsely led students to believe they could obtain necessary certifications to lead tandem jumps by completing courses at the Parachute Center in Acampo. Pooley’s teaching credentials were suspended at the time and he couldn’t certify students on his own.

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

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 during the trial.

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

Pooley watched stoically while seated next to his attorneys.

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

Kwon, 25, was leading a tandem jump with Tyler Turner on Aug. 6, 2016. Turner, 18, was skydiving for the first time and had gone to the center with friends.

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

Pooley wrote a letter to the parachute association after Kwon’s death. It said Garmashov was not aware Pooley had completed paperwork with Garmashov’s signature. And that Garmashov had done nothing wrong.

“I am giving this statement freely, without being pressured by any threats or by being promised anything in return,” Pooley wrote.

His defense attorneys, in court records, argue Pooley told someone at the association that he was forced to sign the letter. And McLoughlin told jurors Garmashov knew Pooley was using his signature while he was out of the country.

She asked them to consider Garmashov’s motive to put himself in a good light following the incident. Garmashov has not been charged with any crimes related to the case.

Prosecutors indicted Pooley in 2021.

U.S. District Court Judge William Shubb told prosecutors they could not mention Kwon’s death in their opening statements, due to a concern that it could sway jurors since Pooley is not charged with causing it.

Sharma followed the order without incident. And prosecutors went on to call their first witness.