BY TOM MCCRADY
A former Grandview businessman is being held in the Washington State Penitentiary after the Washington State Supreme Court denied his appeal for a 1981 theft conviction.
Richard Wayne Ben-Neth, 44, operator of the Downtown Gym at 200 E. Main, was arrested in New Hampshire and transported to the King County Jail on April 13. He had been convicted of first degree theft and unlawful issuance of bank checks in November of 1981 in King County Superior Court, and was sentenced to no more than 10 years in jail. In February, 1982, the parole board gave him a sentence of 42 months, and on April 4, 1984, he was paroled.
That parole was revoked on March 20, 1986, when he was convicted of unlawful practice of law, among several other parole violations. The parole board sentenced him to another 36 months, but he was released from the Walla Walla penitentiary, on Feb. 4, 1987 on a $25,000 bond while he was appealing his conviction.
According to a copyrighted story in the March 27, 1986, Seattle Times, Ben-Neth operated Attorneys' Legal Support Services, Inc., in Tacoma. It was the first listing under "Attorney referral services" in the Tacoma yellow pages and, the story says, the business was so successful that Ben-Neth was preparing to open branches in Bellevue, Bellingham, and Vancouver, Wash. But Ben-Neth was not a lawyer.
The newspaper article states that he started his business -- which he maintained was formed to provide paralegal service -- "while he was in a state prison work-release facility. He continued to dispense legal advice as a parolee for nearly two years before authorities acted."
The story quotes several "outraged" clients who "are out thousands of dollars they many never see again". One former client complained in February 1985 to the state bar association and later to the Pierce County Prosecutor "that the phony lawyer took $900 from her on a promise that he'd handle her divorce, which he failed to do." The story continues, stating that he also took $17,000 from three other clients to whom he was giving legal advice about a deal with a contractor.
The story lists four other situations in which Ben-Neth took money, in one case $26,000, and did not do what he promised. In none of the situations was the money returned.
In the Times' article, Joyce Toso, a victim of Ben-Neth's who lost $6,000, is quoted as saying "Ben-Neth knew just enough to make the state chase their tails around and look like a bunch of fools. He's sly. He's dangerous."
Ben-Neth's legal troubles date back to 1968 when, according to the article, he was given a less-than-honorable discharge from the Marine Corps because he deserted. The story says that in 1981 he told his probation officer that he had a $100-$200-a-day drug habit. It also states that he has been convicted of heroin possession, forgery and false imprisonment.
He pleaded guilty in February, 1986, in Pierce County Superior Court for unauthorized practice of law, a misdemeanor. He was given a 90-day suspended jail sentence, and was ordered to pay two victims $5,995.95 restitution. The jail sentence was revoked and he was fined $1,000. A Pierce County Superior Court clerk said his file shows he was also given credit for 71 days in jail.
Ben-Neth testified before a parole board member that he was not a fake lawyer, but a paralegal. The article explains that he "learned his law by reading books in prison and by taking some community college courses."
Ben-Neth had been known as Lawrence Wayne Bennett, but after his theft conviction he changed his name.
Aaron Owada said the court denied the bond on April 4, 1989, but has not yet heard his appeal. Ben-Neth is claiming in his appeal that his 1981 plea was made involuntarily, that he had ineffectuve assistance of counsel, and that the parole board erred in setting the minimum sentence.
A records officer with the Washington State Penitentiary said Ben-Neth is scheduled to be released on Jan. 12, 1990.
According to Phil Noon, attorney representing Harld Wagner who owned the Main Street building, Ben-Neth owes $375 in back rent and $571.74 for utilities.
Ben-Neth's gym had been first located at 131 Division. Ruth Schneider, who owns that property, told the Grandview Harold that Ben-Neth has never paid any rent for the six months he operated his business there. Schneider said he owes $2,100 in back rent and $1,400 in lawyer fees. The landlord said Ben-Neth received a restraining order against the Schneiders, prohibiting them from entering his business. She added that she had to go to Yakima County Superior Court to have it removed and on two other occassions to ask for their money.
The Grandview Police Department is looking into the disappearance of several pieces of weight lifting equipment from the gym. Apparently several members of Ben-Neth's club had keys and sometime during the night of April 5 or 6 the equipment disappeared. There was no evidence of forced entry.