Caroline Wojtaszek Tackles Tough Challenges as Niagara County DA

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By: Tony Farina

In my long career as an investigative journalist based in Buffalo, first at the late Buffalo Courier-Express and later at Channels 2 and 7, I covered a lot of district attorneys, including Mike Dillon, Ed Cosgrove, Richard Arcara, Kevin Dillon, and Frank Clark.  I learned how tough the job could be and there was no real blueprint to follow when a high-profile case wound up in the lap of the DA.  And there were many that did.

The late Mike Dillon, a giant of a man with the charm of a young Errol Flynn, used to say the toughest part of his job was dealing with friends and family members who somehow got caught up in the system and landed in his office, perhaps a DWI or a fight in a bar. 

“Sometimes you just know too much about everybody,” Dillon confided to friends, and that wisdom still holds true.

It is a job where it seems sometimes the whole world winds up in front of you, and that was the reality recently for Niagara County District Attorney Caroline Wojtaszek who was forced to ask for a special prosecutor outside of her office when bitter former State Sen. George Maziarz unleashed a barrage of mostly unsubstantiated charges against her husband, Henry, charges that had been investigated already by several agencies.  That probe has now landed in the lap of the Monroe County district attorney after Erie County DA John Flynn told court officials, he wanted no part of it.

All things considered, Caroline Wojtaszek has acquitted herself with grace and dignity since taking over as the county’s top prosecutor two years ago.  The UB Law School graduate was well prepared for the conflicts of being district attorney having spent 12 years as a prosecutor in the special victims unit of the office where cases can be difficult on victims, families, and defendants.

“It was good preparation, I had to deal with a lot of people,” she told me this week.  “It gave me a front row seat, sometimes with only two people in a room.  It helped me learn to be responsible as a prosecutor.”

Asked about her philosophy, she quickly says she is governed by “fairness,” and she often consults with her staff on decisions on cases that come before her, saying she has a well-trained and experienced staff of 22 assistants and 12 support people to help her make the best decisions possible.

“It is a fast-paced and ever-changing environment,” she concedes and “it can be stressful,” noting it can be difficult in high-profile cases where the public may not be privy to all the facts and have already formed an opinion based on news accounts or neighborhood gossip.  

“So far, so good,” she says, and these days she’s caught up in researching and absorbing New York State’s criminal justice reforms approved in the new budget that, among other things, eliminates cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes.

Those reforms also include speedy trial oversight by the courts and also require prosecutors to turn over evidence files earlier to defendants to help ensure speedy trials.  All of it has to be absorbed by prosecutors as they seek to punish the criminals in the community in a fair process, yet protect victims and public safety at the same time.

 

 

As all of this transpires, Caroline is also preparing to put herself on the line by prosecuting a 25-year-old murder case that she had made a high point of her campaign more than two years ago.

She will lead the prosecution of the high-profile trial of Joseph Belstadt, set to begin Sept. 16, the prime suspect all along in the death of 17-year-old Mandy Steingasser whose badly decomposed body was found in Bond Lake Park in Lewiston five weeks after she disappeared.  Belstadt was the last known person to see Mandy before she disappeared on Sept. 20, 1993.

Asked why she has elected to lead the prosecution of Belstadt at trial, she said, “I know the case inside and out, and it is important to the community.  I couldn’t give it up at this point.”

The teenage girl’s father has passed away but Wojtaszek stays in communication with her mother.  “She told me that not a day goes by when she doesn’t think of her daughter,” describing the heartbreak and pain that has stayed with the girl’s mother all these years.

Wojtaszek certainly learned trial work from one of the best, the late Bob Murphy of South Buffalo who was her mentor during law school and one of the area’s top criminal defense lawyers for many years.

The “Murph,” as he was known by friends and family, was indeed an exceptional trial attorney, and I personally saw him having an entire jury crying during his summation in a police brutality case so many years ago.

“He was just outstanding,” says Caroline, “and he was a great mentor,” saying she thinks of the things he talked to her about even now as she goes about her work and prepares for a major trial in just a few months.

I knew Bob Murphy quite well and also held him in very high regard as a member of a select circle of some of the area’s best defense attorneys of the day back in 1970s and ’80s, the likes of Harold Boreanaz and John Condon.  Murphy, Boreanaz and Condon are gone, but Joel Daniels, another in that league, and Paul Cambria are still around and practicing.

Caroline Wojtaszek looks ready, willing, and able to carry on in the tradition of her mentor, and that will stand her in good stead as she goes forward as the Niagara County District Attorney.

 

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