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Investigators: Students take aim at martial arts school 

10:38 PM PST on Wednesday, February 16, 2005

By CHRIS INGALLS / KING 5 News

Some students are feeling the sting at a chain of local martial arts schools. But it's not the training that's causing the pain. It's the price.

If you enrolled at the University of Washington this year, you'd pay $5,286.

But the cost of that college education pales in comparison to what some students paid to attend a local martial arts school.

Twenty-six-year-old Mike Rothwell is studying the time-honed movements of Tai Chi, the ancient Chinese art form.

But last year, the Seattle resident belonged to another martial arts school called Oom Yung Doe, a bone crushing form of self-defense.

Rothwell says all it broke was the bank.

KING

Mike Rothwell is studying Tai Chi.

"Let me add it up real fast. Roughly $9,000, plus $8,000, that's $17,000. I took seven seminars that averaged $500 dollars," Rothwell said.

All that money gone in about a year of training.

"I've lost at least $20,000," he said.

Another former student - who didn't want to give his name - says he lost $30,000 in months.

His payments included $9,300 up front for a black belt program, $9,000 more for a master intern program and a $1,000 testing fee.

"All of our pricing is clearly posted," answers Oom Yung Doe part owner Kevin Fallon.

Fallon says prices are clear so students know exactly what they're getting when they sign contracts and that Rothwell signed for the highest level of training.

"Our business, we have 96 percent customer satisfaction rate, which is pretty good," he said.

Are students entirely to blame for their losses?

Our investigation reveals Oom Yung Doe's roots are planted in a criminal past through a man named Robert Sawinski, a part owner of the Seattle-area chain.

Sawinski is one of a dozen instructors of the martial art - then known in Chicago as Chung Moo Qwan - that served federal prison sentences in the mid 1990s.

In news reports and in court, Chicago prosecutors alleged that the nationwide schools had a cult-like atmosphere as they made the case that founder, John C. Kim, skimmed millions of dollars of profits in a tax evasion case.

Several students told us that today's version of Kim's martial art isn't cult-like, but it does aggressively push students for more money.

"Signing up for bigger contracts was always part of the lesson," said student Michael Vincent.

Vincent walked away from his $1,000 contract after just two months.

Vincent says he regrets paying the school $50 for two punching pouches said to contain "rare and unique Asian herbs."

"We were told that these are secret recipes," he said. "As you would sweat, these herbs were supposed to rid you of toxins."

At the natural health University, Bastyr, we asked the dean of the School of Oriental Medicine, Steve Given, and the manager of the Chinese Herb Dispensary, Allen Sayigh, what's in the mysterious bags?

"These looks like soybeans, these looks like black soy beans," Sayigh said after looking at the contents.

Their conclusion: Students were paying $50 for ordinary bags of beans.

"The entire bag couldn't be worth more than a couple dollars," said Given.

But Oom Yung Doe certainly has its supporters.

A KING 5 report last year profiled a woman and a local doctor who said the training helped cure their ailments.

And black-belt Kirsten Sharp explored other martial arts, but found Oom Yung Doe more well-rounded.

"It's like paying for therapy and personal trainers and a gym and all of that stuff rolled into one," said Sharp.

And Fallon said the organizations reputation speaks for itself.

"Our organization has a track record for integrity and the quality of instructors. And I think we stand out in that regard," he said.

Rothwell says he was told he was an exceptional student, capable of reaching Grandmaster Kim's level of spiritual enlightenment and physical prowess if he paid for higher levels of training.

"I literally was signing contracts after some of the hardest physical training of my life. Literally dripping sweat as I'm signing across the dotted line," Rothwell said.

Why would he pay all this money?

"Were my endorphins going? Was I in the right state of mind. I'm not a psychologist, I can't say that," Rothwell said.

Some states do recognize that the workout "high" that new customers feel at fitness clubs, dance and martial arts studios can lead to regrets later and have laws barring long-term expensive contracts.

In Chicago, where Kim was busted, there's now a $2,500 a year contract cap.

The business left Illinois and now concentrates on states like Massachusetts, Florida, Wisconsin and Washington.

Our research reveals these states don't limit the fees Oom Yung Doe can charge.

"We're going to be attacking these contracts," said Rothwell's lawyer, Ryan Garvey.

Garvey, who's planning to sue to get his client's money back, calls it a gaping hole in Washington law, "which makes it a real breeding ground for these kinds of organizations in this state."

Oom Yung Doe says it's offered to go into mediation with some of these students and they've refused.

But state Sen. Darlene Fairley, who chairs the consumer protection committee, says our investigation does raise red flags and she has proposed a new law to limit such contracts to $3,600 per year.

Fairley's committee held a hearing on the proposal Wednesday.