Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

March 21, 2014

Probert on house arrest

Bond modified for former youth leader after propositioning man for sex

PRINCETON — Bond was modified Thursday for a former church youth volunteer accused of child sexual abuse after a judge heard testimony that he recently propositioned a man for sex.

Mercer County Circuit Court Judge William Sadler ordered Timothy Probert, 55, of Bluefield, to be placed on home confinement after a witness testified that Probert offered to pay him $50 to perform oral sex on him. Probert, who is facing 38 counts of child sexual abuse related charges, had previously been free on bond.

In response to questioning by Assistant Prosecuting Attorney George Sitler, John Wayne Harkless testified that he was in Probert’s South Bluefield neighborhood in early March going door-to-door and asking residents if he could do yard work to earn extra money. Harkless testified that he knocked on the door at Probert’s residence on Parkway Avenue between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. and asked if he had any work. “He said he didn’t,” Harkless testified.

Harkless said Probert then called him back and offered to pay him $50 if he would allow him to perform the sex act.

Harkless also testified that he later learned who Probert was from Westminster Presbyterian Pastor Jonathan Rockness.

Probert is a former member of Westminster Presbyterian Church, and it was Rockness who initially contacted the West Virginia State Police with information that led to Probert’s current charges.

Under cross examination, defense attorney William Flanigan asked Harkless about his criminal history. Harkless testified of time spent in jail in Tazewell County, Va., and a March 15 arrest in West Virginia on a bond revocation warrant from Tazewell County. He said he was released on a personal recognizance bond.

Flanigan also questioned Harkless about his ability to recognize Probert’s house when he was later questioned by Sgt. M.D. Clemons, with the Crimes Against Children Unit of the West Virginia State Police. “... You don’t forget a house like that when somebody tells you something like that,” Harkless said.

Judge Sadler asked Harkless if he felt threatened in any way by Probert. Harkless responded, “No.”

Sgt. Clemons then took the stand, testifying that she was notified of this incident by Pastor Rockness. She said she contacted Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ash, who instructed her to get a statement from Harkless.

Clemons testified that while questioning Harkless, he identified Probert from a photo and described his house.

Pastor Rockness then testified, giving a detailed explanation of how he met Harkless and learned of the alleged incident with Probert.

Rockness said Harkless came to his house — located across the street from the church — on Friday, March 7, and asked if he could do yard work to earn some money. Rockness said he told Harkless to follow up with him the next day, and he might be able to help him.

On Saturday, Rockness said he went to the Economy Inn where Harkless was staying. “I gave him $140 — I thought that would give him a few nights (at the hotel) and some food.” Rockness testified he then took Harkless to the grocery store — Grants, on Bluefield Avenue.

Rockness said that during his conversations with Harkless he emphasized the importance of telling him the truth. While driving to the grocery store, Rockness testified that Harkless said, “You want to know the truth, I got a proposition yesterday.”

Initially, Rockness said he thought the incident happened at the hotel. “When I heard specifics and saw the direction he pointed (while driving to the store), I asked him to describe the man.”

Rockness testified that after going to the grocery store, he drove Harkless past Probert’s house on Parkway to see if that was the residence where he was propositioned. Rockness said Harkless initially said “it could be” but he was not sure.

Rockness said he turned the car around and, as they approached the house from the other direction, Harkless said it was the house where the incident occurred, because he recognized some tall hedges and a vine around a tree.

Private investigator Don Sizemore took the stand for the defense, testifying he later interviewed several people who live on Parkway Avenue, and none recalled Harkless coming to their house and asking to do yard work.

Following testimony, Sitler asked Sadler to revoke the defendant’s bond. Sadler said he believed the community could be protected by placing Probert on home confinement.

During a Probert’s preliminary hearing on Feb. 5, Clemons testified that the alleged sex crimes against the youth occurred when Probert was a youth volunteer at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Bluefield, and a volunteer with the Working to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect (WE CAN) program. The charges stem from incidents that date back to 1986, with the latest incidents occurring between July 2008 and 2010.

Clemons testimony at the earlier hearing included a graphic explanation of the alleged acts, which included “mutual masturbation” between Probert and the victims, as well as oral and anal sex.

Following Thursday’s hearing, Rockness issued the following statement to the Daily Telegraph: “First, I want to say that I take no joy in what transpired today. There are no winners here. I happened to be part of the chain of information that went to the police, but I have no personal vendetta against Mr. Probert. He must be agonizing over everything that is going on, and I pray for him — that his own healing may begin.

“However, primarily, our church will not lose sight of the survivors of the allegations concerning Mr. Probert,” Rockness said. “We continue to be an advocate for the truth, whatever that may be. We will also persevere in every way to assist the judicial system as they seek justice in this tremendously sad situation. Our hearts and prayers are with anyone who may have been victimized in all of this; we hope for their healing, peace, and that they may even have great joy as they go through life.”

Probert is charged with 22 counts of sexual abuse by a custodian; six counts of first-degree sexual abuse; seven counts of third-degree sexual assault; one count of distribution and display of obscene matter to a minor; one count of use of obscene matter with intent to seduce a minor; and one count of use of a minor to produce obscene matter or to assist in doing sexually explicit conduct.

The eight alleged victims, all male, ranged in age from 12 to 17 at the time the incidents occurred.

Probert was accused of similar crimes in 1999 when a complaint was made by the mother of a child in the WE CAN program, but no charges were filed. After the accusation, Probert was terminated from the program.

— Contact Perry at

sperry@bdtonline.com

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