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