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W.Va. man acquitted in death of officer

May 06, 1999|By MARLO BARNHART

A West Virginia man was acquitted of negligent driving Thursday in Washington County District Court after an emotionally charged trial in the death of a Washington County fire policeman along Interstate 81 a year ago.

John Aaron Cuddy III, 21, of Falling Waters, W.Va., was charged nearly nine months after the accident that claimed the life of Joseph Kroboth Jr. as he was directing traffic around an earlier fatal accident on the interstate near Williamsport.

"One thing is clear in this case - the victim stepped out into the traveled portion and was hit instantaneously," said Judge Fred Bower, chief judge of the District Courts in Washington/Frederick counties.

"I feel sympathy for the decedent and his family but all testified candidly that he stepped into the highway," Bower said after two hours of testimony.

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The victim's son, Joseph Kroboth III, was present in the courtroom for the two-hour trial but left immediately upon hearing the verdict.

Testifying about the events of May 2, 1998, were eyewitnesses including Maryland State Police Trooper 1st Class Doug Bittinger; a motorist, Michelle Curry of Falling Waters, W.Va.; Williamsport firefighter Paul Wolfe; and Dwayne Flook, another fire policeman.

Kroboth Jr., 59, of 17506 York Road, was a fire police captain assigned to The Volunteer Fire Company of Halfway that night at the scene of another fatal accident on the other side of the interstate.

He died shortly before midnight when he stepped into the fast lane of northbound I-81 - into the path of a 1990 Chevrolet pickup truck driven by Cuddy.

Bittinger said he and Kroboth were attempting to remove the "curious" from the northbound shoulder using flashlights equipped with orange safety wands.

The trooper said he was still in the grassy median when Kroboth stepped onto the interstate and was hit.

Wolfe, who was across the road operating an emergency lighting unit, said he saw the Cuddy vehicle move into the fast lane from the slow lane just as Kroboth walked into the fast lane.

Michelle Curry was in her parked car along the shoulder and was looking right at Kroboth as he was hit.

"I saw him step out onto I-81 and then I saw headlights in the fast lane," Curry said. "He had taken three or four steps onto the highway and he was hit."

Flook said he was about 20 feet away from Kroboth as they both walked across the median to direct the northbound traffic to move on.

"He was just a stride ahead of me and that quickly, the impact occurred," Flook said. "The vehicle was going at least the highway speed."

Defense Attorney Gregory Bannon said Cuddy looked over at the helicopter landing for one split second and that is when Kroboth entered the road.

Prosecutor Bill Hayden said Cuddy's vehicle wasn't noticed until he hit Kroboth.

"He was going at a rate of speed too fast for what was going on," Hayden said. "He wasn't exercising due care."

Kroboth was a 39-year veteran of the Halfway Fire Department, where he was serving on the board of trustees at the time of his death. He was also a member of the Antietam Fire Company.

Bannon said Cuddy was charged Feb. 15 with negligent driving, which has a maximum $500 fine penalty. The statute of limitations for charges in such a case is one year, Bannon said.

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