Las Vegas Sun

October 2, 2014

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CSN program still in need of jumpstart

Mojave National Preserve, Sunday, May 14, 2006. A Las Vegas couple hiking with their children near Baker, Calif., discovered human remains - a white man, at least 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds.

Eight days later police identified the body as that of 47-year-old Lawrence Thomas, an auto technology instructor at the College of Southern Nevada. Better known as Larry, he was last seen April 13 at the Cheyenne campus. His wife filed a missing person report April 22.

Police say evidence indicates he was killed in Henderson, of blunt trauma to the head and chest, and was dumped in the desert, undiscovered for at least a week.

The college acknowledged his death months later during a moment of silence at a convocation, but news that he was killed has traveled only in speculative whispers. Until now, his death, disappearance and killing have not been reported in the Las Vegas news media.

The autotechnology program had bloomed under Thomas' leadership as department chairman. It operated a revenue-producing repair shop where community members could pay for car repairs by students getting on-the-job training

Class enrollment topped out at 837 students in spring 2004 - and several hundred more were turned away for lack of space. In January 2005 the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents asked the state for more money for facilities to accommodate courses in diesel and collision repair.

But Thomas stepped down as chairman in July 2005 amid a flurry of management changes collegewide by then-President Richard Carpenter. It was triggered by a three-month internal audit of the autotechnology department that uncovered financial mismanagement and oversight failures in the repair shop, putting the department at "high risk for fraud, theft and personal gain," according to auditor Rick Bloyer's October 2005 report.

Carpenter demoted Thomas' boss, Applied Technologies Dean Paul Pate, to an associate dean and instituted several new policies for the department.

Friends and close colleagues of Thomas, speaking on condition of confidentiality out of fear for their livelihoods, say Thomas was part of the problems and one of the employees who brought it to light. As program director, Thomas had looked the other way when employees used the shop to work on their own cars or the cars of others, Thomas' friends told the Sun.

But Thomas then told them that he suspected embezzlement and told his friends and family that he had "dirt" on people at the college and feared he was in danger. He didn't elaborate or provide evidence, but colleagues say he reported at least some of what he knew to the auditors.

Friends say he grew more and more antsy in the months before his disappearance, refusing to go anywhere alone. After his disappearance, friends said , they thought he might have gone to New York, where he had family, to blow off steam. Thomas had been in and out of the hospital for a few years before his death for heart and stomach problems likely caused by stress, friends said.

And his life was full of it.

As program director Thomas had worked insanely long hours, coaching students and teaching more classes than he was supposed to in addition to the administrative work.

In January 2004 he served two weeks' jail time for cutting off a semi on Interstate 15, causing the truck to swerve and hit another vehicle. Two young women - Emberly Thomas, 19, and Tulare Adams, 22, were killed.

At home, he and his wife of 20 years often fought over strained finances and the stress of raising five children, now ages 9 to 16.

Thomas' wife, Stephanie, called around after he disappeared, friends said, but delayed filing a police report because he was on probation for the accident and she worried that if he had left the state without permission, his troubles would grow.

Stephanie Thomas and other family members declined to comment.

Henderson police have questioned his friends and his wife, and searched the Thomas home in February 2006, but made no arrests. Thomas' life insurance money and 401(k) funds have been frozen indefinitely. Police spokesman Keith Paul told the Sun there were no new leads and declined to comment further .

The department Thomas helped build has been in turmoil since he stepped down as program director and the audit led to an overhaul of business practices.

Several instructors have left, and class enrollment, after dropping slightly from its spring 2004 high, has plummeted by 200 students in the past two years to 558.

Eleven classes scheduled for this fall have been canceled and 10 more are half-full or less. About the only bit of good news: The diesel and automotive collision programs started this fall, adding about 130 students to the renamed transportation technology department. A new $13.6 million facility on the Cheyenne campus opened about three weeks ago.

But the audit still haunts the department.

College administrators launched the audit after an employee reported an unauthorized petty cash fund.

Auditors discovered two former employees had shredded documents right before the audit began.

Among the findings of the three-month audit:

After the audit's release, several new policies were instituted, including restricting students to working on their own, or their parents', cars or ones owned by the program. A new work-order program was instituted along with rules for all business transactions. Every repair has to be directly connected to student education.

Autotechnology instructors, who thought the program was getting back on track, say they were rattled again in August when department Chairman Dennis Soukup named Pate as director of the department. Faculty and staff complained to the Sun that Pate was again in charge of the program that had been scalded in an audit two years earlier when he had been in charge.

Adding to their confusion was that just a few weeks before Pate was appointed on Aug. 6, another instructor, Edgardo Rapalo, had been named department director.

Multiple highly placed staff members, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Sun that Carpenter had promised Pate that he would be allowed to run the program again after heat from the audit subsided. Carpenter, now chancellor for a Houston area-community college district, denied that claim through his secretary, Elva Borsch.

At the time of the audit and before he left CSN, Carpenter told the Sun that he had great respect for Pate. He thought Pate had naively trusted those in the department, not that Pate was guilty of malfeasance, as some employees continue to allege.

Pate's direct supervisor, Soukup, did not return requests for comment, and Applied Technologies Dean Michael Spangler referred the Sun to college spokeswoman Helen Clougherty, saying that the decision to appoint Pate as program director was made before he, Spangler, arrived at the college this summer. Clougherty did not respond to written questions from the Sun.

Carlos Campo, interim vice president of academic affairs and a friend of Pate's, told the Sun that he thought Pate was the best person to run the autotechnology program, having started at the college as an autotechnology instructor in 1995.

Campo said it wasn't widely known that Pate had asked for the audit after employee accusations surfaced. Campo further said he thought the audit was blown out of proportion, and that Pate may have been unfairly demoted in an knee-jerk reaction. One of the alleged inappropriate favors, for example, was a complimentary oil change for a faculty member who had sung the national anthem at a fundraising event for the department.

Even in his reduced role as associate dean, Pate worked to institute the new guidelines, Campo said. An ongoing follow-up audit is finding that the department has addressed the earlier issues, Campo said. Bloyer, the auditor, said he could not comment on an ongoing audit.

"Paul is reenergized," Campo said. "This is his program. He built it from the ground up."

Pate declined to comment on the audit, its aftermath and his reappointment as program director . He would say only that the program is healthy and moving forward. He is working with instructors on recruiting more students and in developing the new diesel and collision repair programs.

Sun reporter Mary Manning contributed to this story.

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