In On-Air Search for Jus­tice, Man Finds a Few En­e­mies

The Washington Post Sunday - - Metro - MARC FISHER

O n a Satur­day evening last June, Alan Ko­bren was out for a jog along Univer­sity Boule­vard in Col­lege Park and Puja Pa­tel was driv­ing her Honda Civic to see some friends.

Sud­denly, Pa­tel heard a thud. Ko­bren, hit and thrown by the car, was killed. Pa­tel called po­lice.

Nearly 10 months later, af­ter a po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­cluded that Pa­tel was not at fault and that Ko­bren had strayed into the traf­fic lane, the ac­ci­dent has spawned a per­sonal cru­sade, a me­dia phe­nom­e­non and a trail of ou­traged of­fi­cials.

Ko­bren’s griev­ing brother, Spencer Ko­bren, spends an hour ev­ery Sun­day night on the ra­dio, re­hash­ing the ac­ci­dent, press­ing Prince Ge­orge’s County to look deeper into the case, slam­ming po­lice and prose­cu­tors, and tak­ing calls from res­i­dents who have other com­plaints about the po­lice. Some of­fi­cers be­lieve they are be­ing un­fairly painted as cor­rupt and in­com­pe­tent. But as a di­rect re­sult of Spencer Ko­bren’s ag­i­ta­tion, the po­lice de­part­ment has launched an in­ter­nal-af­fairs probe into its han­dling of the ac­ci­dent.

Ko­bren’s show, “High­way Jus­tice,” airs at 10 p.m. on WJFK (106.7 FM). De­pend­ing

on whom you ask, it is a “con­stant beat of un­founded ac­cu­sa­tions” (Percy Al­ston, pres­i­dent of Prince Ge­orge’s Fra­ter­nal Or­der of Po­lice), “un­fair per­sonal at­tacks and an in­ap­pro­pri­ate use of the air­waves” (State’s At­tor­ney Glenn F. Ivey), “a soap­box that just goes on and on” (Pa­tel’s at­tor­ney, Steve Rosen), or “real re­al­ity ra­dio — one man try­ing to get jus­tice for his brother” (Spencer Ko­bren).

On the ra­dio, Ko­bren, 42, ac­cuses the po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tor in his brother’s case of ei­ther be­ing lousy at his job or driven by im­pure mo­tives. Ko­bren minces no words: He calls the spokesman for the state’s at­tor­ney a “hunch­backed” ex­ple­tive. He ac­cuses the po­lice of let­ting his brother “die like a dog,” then fail­ing to find and ques­tion po­ten­tial wit­nesses. Ko­bren be­lieves the po­lice should have done more to check on the driver’s con­di­tion and back­ground, and he says there’s no way his brother would have been jog­ging in the traf­fic lane.

A vet­eran of many years in ra­dio, Ko­bren, who lives in Cal­i­for­nia, used to buy time on WJFK to air his pro­gram about cures for male hair loss. When his brother was killed, Ko­bren went to his bosses at the CBS-owned sta­tion and pro­posed a pro­gram chron­i­cling his ef­fort to find out how his brother died and whether any­one was at fault.

The sta­tion loves the show; Ko­bren sells ads, and WJFK and the host split the in­come. “He’s done a re­ally good job of mak­ing it per­sonal and con­nect­ing with peo­ple,” says Michael Hughes, WJFK’s gen­eral man­ager, who al­lows him­self to dream about “High­way Jus­tice” grow­ing into a much larger ex­pres­sion of pub­lic anger about po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tions. “Af­ter all,” Hughes says, “look at how ‘Amer­ica’s Most Wanted’ started.” The long­time TV fugi­tive-search show is hosted by John Walsh, who came to promi­nence through his cru­sade to find the man who killed his son, Adam, in 1981.

The very thought of Ko­bren’s show win­ning a larger au­di­ence is ap­palling to the of­fi­cers he at­tacks ev­ery week and to Pa­tel, 23, who re­ferred me to her at­tor­ney.

“This is a young girl who wants to go on with her life,” says at­tor­ney Steve Rosen. “She feels ter­ri­ble about what hap­pened. But she did not do any­thing wrong.”

Ivey has in­vited Ko­bren to present any ev­i­dence he has to the grand jury. Ko­bren says he plans to do so in June. “You do won­der how long the sta­tion is go­ing to give him the mega­phone with­out any ef­fort to see if what he’s say­ing has any cre­dence,” Ivey says.

Ko­bren says he does not be­lieve Pa­tel drove into his brother on pur­pose. Po­lice con­cluded that Pa­tel was not speed­ing, had not been drink­ing and was not on a cell­phone. But Ko­bren is aghast that she could kill some­one even ac­ci­den­tally and walk away with­out so much as a traf­fic ticket.

Maj. Andrew El­lis, who has dealt with Ko­bren for the po­lice chief, says the county has be­gun an in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion to look into his al­le­ga­tions. El­lis is diplo­matic about Ko­bren: “He’s con­cerned about his brother’s death. Cer­tainly, peo­ple who’ve lis­tened to him on the ra­dio could con­sider him an­tag­o­nis­tic, but he seems rea­son­able to me.”

Other of­fi­cers are steamed about Ko­bren’s con­stant crit­i­cism. On­line po­lice mes­sage boards are filled with an­gry chat­ter about the show. “Our de­part­ment is try­ing to do some heal­ing with the com­mu­nity, and this is just dam­ag­ing,” says Al­ston, the FOP pres­i­dent. “It’s a tragic in­ci­dent, but when some­body’s so driven, you’re not go­ing to get a fair shake.” Peo­ple sym­pa­thetic to the po­lice have called at least one of Ko­bren’s spon­sors to de­mand that it not sup­port the ra­dio show.

Undeterred, Ko­bren hired a private eye, Lewis Neuwelt, and two firms that spe­cial­ize in ac­ci­dent re­con­struc­tions. Ko­bren’s ex­perts say the in­juries his brother suf­fered were in­con­sis­tent with the po­lice con­clu­sion that he strayed into the traf­fic lane be­fore Pa­tel hit him.

But with­out eye­wit­nesses, Neuwelt says, “there’s no real phys­i­cal ev­i­dence that could be help­ful on the main is­sue: Where was the point of im­pact — in the travel lane or on the shoul­der?” What does Ko­bren want? “Bot­tom line, this is not go­ing to bring my brother back,” he says. “But I can’t let my nephew grow up think­ing that his fa­ther just ran into the street. Peo­ple may say I’m not fair, but un­for­tu­nately, I’m the only per­son who can or will do this. If I didn’t have the show, if I didn’t hire my own in­ves­ti­ga­tor, if I didn’t hire my own re­con­struc­tion­ist, there would never have been an in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

Cut through the anger, an­guish and show­biz and there’s ac­tu­ally a small patch of com­mon ground: The state’s at­tor­ney and Ko­bren agree that Mary­land law doesn’t pro­vide enough op­tions for a vic­tim of an ac­ci­dent in which the driver was sober. Ivey and Ko­bren both wish the law pro­vided a way to pun­ish driv­ers who don’t meet the le­gal thresh­old for neg­li­gence but none­the­less cre­ated a tragedy.

But in the war of words over Alan Ko­bren’s death, there doesn’t seem to be room for such nu­ance. The ra­dio show, Spencer Ko­bren says, “will keep go­ing. It def­i­nitely has a lot of po­ten­tial.”

The death of his brother, Alan, left, spurred Spencer Ko­bren’s ra­dio cru­sade.

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