Print Columns   |   Web Chats   |   Blog Archives   |  

Highway Injustice?--A Brother's Story

On 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."

By Marc Fisher |  April 7, 2007; 11:52 PM ET
Previous: Who's Got the Beatles? WEAM's Got the Beatles! | Next: Following Orders: John McCain's New Money Man


Please email us to report offensive comments.

Wow. A lot of words but not enough details.

"Saturday evening last June" ... was it dark or still light enough to see? If it was dark, how many streetlights in the area?

Was Alan Kobren wearing light or dark clothing? Was Alan Kobren using a ipod or walkman that may have preventing him from hearing a vehicle approaching? Was Alan Kobren running on the side of the street facing traffic or did he have his back to the car approaching?

Was Puja Patel changing the CD or radio station? Using a cell phone?

At any rate, it appears Spencer Kobren has managed to keep the spotlight on his brother's accidental death. His motives appear to be just, but it is interesting he is getting paid to do it. Is he donating his profits from this to his nephew in memory of his brother? No mention of that in the blog, yet.

Suggestion: Current MD law states it is illegal to drive on the shoulder. Maybe we should including running too. If Alan Kobren had been running on the sidewalk the law would have been very clear as to who was at fault.

Posted by: SoMD | April 9, 2007 11:28 AM

Kobren must be deranged because how could any rational person criticize the Prince Georges police department. It is a model of competency and integrity. It's not like they would allow an officer to remain on duty even after shooting two delivery men, killing one, and lying about the circumstances on the 911 call. Even if they would, they would at least suspend him after he brandished a gun at a mistaken home appraiser. Nor would the PGPD police follow an innocent citizen across state lines and shoot him as he was trying to escape what he thought was a potential carjacking. And never, ever would the PGPD coerce any confessions from innocent people just to close a case. Thus, Mr. Kobren is obviously delusional because there is absolutely no reason to cast any negative light on the PG police department.

Posted by: Al | April 9, 2007 1:24 PM

There are accidents that happen through no real fault of anyone. This incident appears to be one of those. My heart goes out to Spencer Kobren for the loss of his brother.
I would like to know what he wants to happen to her and why she should be punished.

Posted by: a concerned driver | April 9, 2007 3:23 PM

To me, this is the most chilling aspect of this guy's crusade:

"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."

Yes, it's a tragedy, but if there's no negligence on the part of the driver, how can you hold her responsible? The point of the criminal law is to hold bad actors accountable -- but if there's no bad action, then no one can be held accountable. The point of the civil law is to make the injured party whole, which is why you should have an insurance policy. But accidents do happen. Sometimes the only closure you get is the life insurance check. To lower the threshold to some undefined standard where you are punished even for something you could not have prevented?

I feel bad for the guy who died, and his family. But I also feel terrible for the driver, who did nothing wrong and is now the victim of this guy's crusade to get someone/anyone on the hook.

Posted by: OD | April 9, 2007 3:30 PM

This story is nothing compared to the story last year of the driver in Georgetown who drove over a police officer who was directing traffic at the intersection of M and Wisconsin and killed him. The driver was not charged with anything.

Or take the recent case of the Chicago-area young woman who was downloading a cell phone ring-tone while driving, and was so distracted she swerved far enough out of her lane to hit a bicycle with the driver's side of her car. She killed the cyclist, but was not charged.

The reality is that in our current legal environment bad driving is just not considered a law-enforcement matter. The only exception is if you are impaired or engaging in other illegal activity.

Posted by: washington, dc | April 9, 2007 11:24 PM

Here are some important details that weren't included in the article. These details should shed some light on the reality of the situation. I'm just going to bullet them for now... there is far too much information to provide in this post.

I'm in the process of developing a detailed website that will provide the public and the media with all of the necessary details of this case. The public needs to know the truth to fully understand why I have taken on this crusade.

My brother Alan was killed in broad daylight.

One of the first PG County cops on the scene just so happened to have had a prior intimate relationship with Puja Patel, the at fault driver.

Patel was never given a field sobriety test according to police.

The actual first responder to the scene provided our investigator with a signed statement stating that he was approached and stopped by two eyewitnesses that were driving directly behind Patel. According to this first responder these witnesses stated that Patel veered off the road and struck my brother with her car. These witnesses were never "officially" questioned by police and were not included in any police report that has been made available to my investigators or to myself.

This first responder is a local fire chief who just so happened to be the person who took my brother's vitals and noted that he was DOA. For some unknown reason he was never questioned by the lead investigator of this case or included as a responder or witness at the scene in any documentation that pertains to my brother's death. Only after our private investigation did we find this key witness.

PG county PD claimed that they were actively looking for witnesses to the incident. They claimed that a press release was issued immediately to all of the local media in search of these witnesses. Apparently they didn't realize that I was in radio and could easily find out if this was in fact the case.
This was not the case. A press release was finally issued on July 3rd 2006 a full two weeks after the incident and only after I told the lead investigator that I knew for a fact a release was never issued, and that I wanted to see confirmation that it had been.

The PG County PD lead investigator claimed that he contacted the State Medical Examiner on September13 2006 to clarify her report in reference to the point of impact on my brother's person.
According to this investigator the medical examiner stated that the main point of impact on my brother's body was at the side/back of the left knee. The investigator stated that he discussed this finding with the State Medical Examiner and that she was in agreement that my brother crossed the roadway from right to left in front of Patel's vehicle. Based on these findings it was determined that my brother had for some reason decided to cross the road and was accidentally killed when Patel struck him with her car about 12 inches within the roadway.

We decided to speak with the medical examiner ourselves and she provided the following in a signed statement: "I do not recall saying to him (the investigator) that I was in agreement with him that Mr. Kobren crossed the roadway in front of the vehicle." In fact "I would say that the point of impact to Mr. Kobren was to the back posterior surface of the leg. My records do not reflect that the point of impact was to the side of the left leg."

My brother's was running in an approximately 6 foot wide biker's lane. He was hit by Patel's right bumper, vaulted over the car first hitting the right side of the hood, smashing the passenger side windshield, ripping off the passenger side mirror, crushing the passenger side A Post near the roof, then rolled off the side of the car landing clear over the guardrail in the tall grass. Again my brother was not pushed forward, he was hit low and completely vaulted over the car. According to our experts it defies the laws of physics for my brother to have been hit within the roadway and land where he landed in light of the size of the shoulder and distance from the roadway to my brother's final resting place.

Here's what one witness on the scene states.

"I have been in the business for 17 years. You can see the damage to the A post. Based on my experience if the car hit the jogger in the roadway given the car damage he would have landed in the road, not so far off the road." "The Jogger was hit from behind."

Was Patel impaired? Was she text messaging someone, but never had the opportunity to press send? Was she applying her makeup while driving or reaching for a CD on the floor of her vehicle? Were these PG investigators attempting to protect her or one of their own? We may never know. But we do know that Puja N.Patel killed my brother with her vehicle in broad daylight on a completely straight stretch of road, with no over hanging trees and no overpasses or parked cars to interfere with her sight lines or field of vision. We know that Patel did not attempt to brake before she struck and killed my brother. And contrary to what was written in Sunday's article, she was found to be exceeding the posted speed limit at the estimated time of impact.

We also know that Corporal James Murphy is now under investigation by the PG County IA unit after I was able to provide them with sufficient evidence to question the accuracy of his investigation of this case.

I also want to note that while I do split the revenue generated by the program with WJFK, I certainly do not profit from the broadcast. WJFK is in business to make money and they need to get paid. Since I live in LA and deliver the program via satellite to your community, I incur the following expenses: Studio time, the cost of production, which includes my engineer, call screener, and sidekick, ISDN phone line fees to send the program to New York to be put up on Satellite and to connect with my partner who broadcasts from our studios in New York. I have to rent 1.5 hours of actual satiate time, which is not cheep. So at this point even after I split the ad revenue with WJFK, I incur a cost of $900 per broadcast out of pocket. Now I'm not complaining or concerned about spending the money for this effort, but I want to make it clear that "Highway Justice" is a labor of love.

My brother deserves the truth to be told...And I'm going to make sure that it is.

Spencer Kobren

Posted by: Spencer Kobren | April 10, 2007 6:15 AM

Let me say that I have followed this story, and I remember when this first happened. I thought this would blow over after the police report found the driver of no wrong doing. It seems that many cases such as this would be over and done with by now, but since the family of Alan has money, they are searching for answers that are not there at the expense of many other innocent individuals. Yes this was a tragedy, but I don't know how a 21 year old college student can move on with their life when they are being made out like a "cold hearted criminal". My heart goes out to the family of the Alan, and the driver who has to deal with all of this as well!

Posted by: steve | April 11, 2007 9:13 AM

Why should a "21 year old college student" who ran over a jogger on a sidewalk in broad daylight be able to "move on with their life" just because her former police officer lover didn't allow her to be properly examined a the scene of her crime, and the police investigator has unquestionably been shown to have falsified aspects of his report?

Posted by: Al | April 11, 2007 9:20 AM

As a friend of Alan who has lived in this area for 20 years I think that we can safely say that the PG Police Department does not have the best record for ensuring that it protects the citizens of the county.

Unfortunately I find the questions that are raised to be disconcerting and the fact that the States Attorney has invited Spencer to bring his evidence to a Grand Jury is even more disturbing. Why do we need to depend on private citizens to get justice, isn't that vigilante justice? Shouldn't he be reviewing the evidence with Spencer to ensure that the investigation was adequately conducted, sounds like there is enough evidence to lead a reasonable person to question that assumption.

Also what is Mr Ivey doing to change the law so that this does not happen to another family? He agrees that the law needs to be changed so do something.

All I know is in the end, I have lost one of the best friends I have ever had. I am sure Ms Patel has suffered and that she will bear this cross for the rest of her life. But what about those of us that have to explain to Al's son that his father was killed in a senseless accident and the person that took him from us has paid no penalty. I did nothing wrong nor did his family yet we get to deal with this pain everyday. How do I convince my children and Al's that there is justice in this world and that they should trust the police that the police will do what is right.

I remember a friend of mine once telling me that if you hit a pedestrian in your car make sure their dead otherwise you will get in trouble. I was appalled at that statement but I guess it is true, and that is the true crime here.

Posted by: Tim | April 12, 2007 9:16 AM

Spencer, Driving a car is like walking around waving a sword. I am sorry for your loss. Driver's have very little accountability in these incidents, and the police know very well that they are biased against pedestrians in car-pedestrian accident cases. I am talking about MoCo and DC as well. I have been hit in crosswalks 4 times in MoCo, and I have been told ourigth that the police will not do anything unless the pedestrian is hospitalized. One can be charged with assult for spitting, by striking someone with a car is OK. So the last time I was hit, in front of a dozen witnesses, I had to demand that the EMTs check me out just so the cops would take the incident seriously enough to give the driver a ticket. Four days later, a little boy is struck and killed on that same street.

I'd love to come on your show.

Posted by: bkp | April 12, 2007 4:08 PM

Call in this week and we'll put you on.

Posted by: Spencer Kobren | April 12, 2007 4:47 PM

Tim posts "But what about those of us that have to explain to Al's son that his father was killed in a senseless accident and the person that took him from us has paid no penalty" With no law being broken, and in your words an "accident", why should any individual get penalized?

Posted by: Anonymous | April 12, 2007 9:02 PM

Accidents do happen through no "fault". I was run over by a car while on a crosswalk. The driver told me he didn't see me because of the shadows of big buildings. I have no reason to doubt that. The driver's insurance is obviously liable but I made a conscious decision not to pursue charges against the drivr despite my injuries.

Posted by: LH | April 13, 2007 10:27 AM

The quote posted anonymously was "With no law being broken, and in your words an "accident", why should any individual get penalized". I used the term accident loosely in my post.

I believe the individual behind the wheel, Ms Patel, swerved into the shoulder and hit Al. I don't know why and she isn't saying.

I believe that she feels a tremendous guilt but has been given the advice that she needs to stay quiet.

I believe that my friend who's birthday was last week is dead and this woman refuses to take responsibility. There has been no apology from her no attempt to reach out to the family or even meet with them.

So tell me why she should be allowed to move on with her life when she took my friends life from him yet offers no remorse.

At least have the courage and apologize, explain what happened why you swerved off the road and hit him. Maybe that will allow all of us who knew Al to move on with our lives and end this terrible blow.

His wife has to deal with his birthday followed by Mothers Day, then Fathers Day all without her husband and the Father of her child. You tell me who suffers more everyday? Again I don't want Ms Patel to go to jail for the rest of her life I just want to understand what happened. God tells us to forgive and I know I for one am willing, I just want to understand what I am forgiving.

Posted by: Tim | April 15, 2007 12:25 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company