12/23/08 — Retiring prosecutor advocated for victims

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Retiring prosecutor advocated for victims

By Nick Hiltunen
Published in News on December 23, 2008 1:46 PM

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Jan Kroboth

Jan Kroboth's prosecution unit had a nickname for a while -- "the old lady advocate team."

The nickname came about because Mrs. Kroboth, an assistant district attorney who announced her retirement this month, was often assigned cases with elderly victims, she said.

Part of the reason, District Attorney Branny Vickory said, was her talent for establishing a relationship with frightened crime victims -- people simply petrified of a witness stand.

Some of those cases were among her most memorable, including a man who targeted elderly women shopping at discount stores.

Another case involved younger victims -- prostitutes targeted by a man who viciously beat them, thinking they would never tell their stories to police.

But her talent for establishing relationships extended beyond victims, and Vickory said he and his junior staff benefited immediately when Mrs. Kroboth began serving Wayne, Lenoir and Greene counties about 20 years ago.

Vickory and other members of his staff were fresh out of law school, he said, and Mrs. Kroboth instantly provided a different perspective.

"One of the things that Jan brought to the office right out of the chute, Jan came from a perspective of a being a mother of two boys, the wife of a fighter pilot -- all kinds of different perspective," Vickory said.

"She would always bring up things that none of us would have even imagined."

Being a prosecutor often means dealing with unsavory characters, who included not just defendants but sometimes witnesses for the prosecution.

But Mrs. Kroboth kept a brave demeanor throughout, when others might have crumpled under the weight of terrible crimes and the sad stories of their victims.

"I don't think I've ever been afraid of the people that I've come across in my experience," Mrs. Kroboth said. "Sometimes, I think the stress of dealing with someone who has lost a loved one -- particularly a child -- sometimes I ended up taking that home with me.

"So, it's difficult, you just never understand why those things happen. So I've tried to learn to not take it all so personally. I can't solve every problem."

Still, from those nights when she lost sleep thinking of lost lives, she found a hardened resolve, along with her instinct to keep fighting crime from a district attorney's viewpoint, she said.

"(Through prosecution), I can try to help make it easier for people that are victims, by making them feel like there is justice," Mrs. Kroboth said.

One of the earliest such cases was when a young man died because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time -- a teenager who was killed in a vehicle with someone else targeted by a drug dealer.

The bullets were not intended for the boy who died, who was driving at the time.

That case was one of the first she tried with Claud Ferguson, an assistant district attorney who retired about a year ago.

And although the cases they worked together were unpleasant, they allowed her to forge strong relationships with people like Ferguson, she said.

Then there were the relationships she forged with victims of crime.

In 2005, James Lenair Allbrittain, 30, of Oliver Street, was accused of targeting elderly women shopping at "dollar" stores.

"He (Allbrittain) would stake them out in the morning, then he would follow them and attack them and steal things," Mrs. Kroboth recounted.

There were about a dozen victims in the 2005 Allbrittain case, and not a single one wanted to testify.

"They were afraid of the court system in general," Mrs. Kroboth said. "I went out and called on all of them."

She did it with the assistance of Sue Jones, who often helped Mrs. Kroboth coax unwilling witnesses into court.

"We begged and pleaded," Mrs. Kroboth said. "They'd already been traumatized by being robbed, and then to have to come into court was just being traumatized all over again."

But her legal assistant said Mrs. Kroboth just had a way with convincing the victims.

"Jan was very persuasive," Mrs. Jones said.

Then, in the courtroom, the once-frightened elderly women found some courage in facing their attacker.

One, said Mrs. Jones, had a question for Allbrittain.

"When she testified, she looked at the defendant and said, 'I'd like to know what you did with my pocketbook.' She was so funny."

But now, Mrs. Kroboth is leaving scenes like that behind her, to continue traveling with her husband Ed, a fighter pilot who also flew commercial jets for U.S. Air after retiring from military service.

"He (Ed) has been my greatest support," Mrs. Kroboth said. "I didn't go to law school until my kids were in junior high."

When she moved to the Wayne County area, law school was the first thought on her mind.

"I found out about Campbell law school before I even bought a house," Mrs. Kroboth said.

By the time her husband arrived from another engagement, the paperwork for law school had been filled out, and he was nothing but supportive, Mrs. Kroboth said.

Vickory has often described Mrs. Kroboth as a "go-getter," and says Mrs. Kroboth's influence in the district attorney's office will be felt long after her retirement.

"I've always gone to Jan for counsel, and I fully intend to keep doing that," the district attorney said.