SEVEN FIELDS (KDKA) — A karate instructor, who former clients all across the country accuse of taking their money and then disappearing, has moved into the Pittsburgh area.
KDKA’s Andy Sheehan: “What is your name? Are you Jonathan Stowe?”
The man who walked away from KDKA’s camera didn’t care to stop and talk, and wouldn’t even confirm his name, but we know him as the sole instructor at the recently opened Victory Martial Arts Studio in Seven Fields.
With the help of a prospective client, KDKA has uncovered his checkered past.
“My son is young so I wanted to make sure that I found out everything I could about who I’m going to be sending him to,” the client, who is not being identified, said.
The local woman signed her son up for a free introduction at the studio in July, but decided to do some research before committing to lessons.
There was no background information to be had on Victory’s website, and she says the instructor – or sensei – would only refer to himself as Johnny. Then, she noticed the name ‘Johnny Stowe’ on his black belt and did some digging.
“I found out that he has a lot of unhappy customers,” the woman said.
KDKA started digging as well and found that back in 2006 the state of Indiana sued a karate instructor named Jonathan Stowe, alleging fraudulent and deceptive practices, signing more than 100 families up to lifelong contracts for as much as $7,000 apiece and then abruptly closing all three of his studios.
After he paid the court-ordered restitution, the state sued Stowe again when other clients came forward. But by then, he had already moved to Washington State, where he filed for bankruptcy to protect himself from creditors.
Then, later that year, a man – bearing a remarkable resemblance to Stowe – opened up a place called Karate America outside of Seattle under another name.
“His name here was Jonathan Mahon. Evidently, his real name is Jonathan Stowe,” said Todd McLean, of Issaquah, Washington.
Along with dozens of other families, Todd and Lea McLean enrolled their 6-year-old son, Ethan, at the studio in Issaquah, Washington, but soon were pressured by the instructor to sign up for long-term contracts.
After plunking down thousands of dollars, the families showed up for their lessons at the studio last December, finding that it had closed down for good and that the instructor, whom they knew as Jon Mahon, had disappeared.
“Losing the money is difficult to handle. It makes you angry, but how it affected the kids was even more devastating,” said Todd.
“When the kids realized he was gone, when it was all said and done, that’s the part, as a parent, that makes you so angry, is you watch the faces of these kids just fall,” said Lea.
In addition to technique and skills, a sensei is supposed to teach honor, respect and integrity. The McLeans said they were forced to teach their son a bitter lesson. That his instructor lacked all of those qualities, and that people you admire sometimes aren’t always what they seem.
“He really didn’t care about the honor, the respect, the dignity. He really just wanted to money and he wasn’t afraid to hurt our kids in the process,” Todd said.
KDKA went to Seven Fields, and Stowe was in no mood to talk.
Sheehan: “I’m looking for Jonathan Stowe.”
Stowe: “I’m sorry; I’m not him.”
Sheehan: “Were you in Issaquah?”
He locked us out and then retired to the bathroom until we left. But later in the day, we returned and confronted him again, though he tried to evade us.
Sheehan: “Did you have studios in Indiana and Seattle? It seems like you go around the country and you change your name after you’ve signed up these people to these life-long contracts. Any answer to that, Jon?”
Stowe did tell KDKA that the Seven Fields studio is not his.
Stowe: “I don’t own the studio. You should do some fact checking.”
KDKA’s Andy Sheehan did check. Incorporation records show the studio is registered to 4J Industries of Wexford, and a woman named Jalyn Kapsin called me and identified herself as the owner.
Kapsin wouldn’t discuss her relationship with Stowe.
But our prospective client said Stowe had introduced Kapsin as his wife, saying they had moved back to Pittsburgh to be close to her parents in Wexford. An online baby registry indicates they are the parents of a newborn.
Sheehan: “Well, what are the facts? Like, what is your name? Are you Jonathan Stowe? Are you John David Mahon? It seems like you go around the country changing your name after you sign people up to these life-long contracts. Any answer to that, Jon?”
Back in Issaquah, a studio called Karate West decided to honor the contracts of some 20 jilted families free of charge. Owner Randy Holeman says he did it for the integrity of the sport.
“I didn’t want those people leaving the martial arts with that bad of a taste in their mouth, thinking that we’re all a bunch of con artists,” Holeman said.
The prospective client now says she’s glad she didn’t sign up her son.
“I grew up in Tae Kwan Do, and I think that it instills confidence and integrity and it does a lot of things for your character. Apparently, not for him,” the woman said.
As for Jonathan Stowe, he wasn’t talking.
Sheehan: “What do you say to the people you ripped off, Jon? What do you say to those people?”