The sheriff told Maggy Krell she barely stood a chance in Lassen County six years ago when she took on a 20-year-old murder case.
A few years earlier in her prosecutorial career, a San Joaquin County judge thought a vehicular manslaughter case Krell was pressing was a loser and called her boss to pull her off it.
Krell didn’t listen in either instance – and won convictions in both cases. Now she’s running for Sacramento County district attorney, and once again her audacity is showing.
Just four days after Jan Scully announced she would not run for re-election this year, after 20 years as Sacramento’s district attorney, Scully endorsed Deputy District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert for the job. Much of the local law enforcement establishment followed with their own endorsements of Schubert. So have 16 retired judges.
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If the endorsements of Scully and Sheriff Scott Jones and others in the law enforcement community signaled the race was a lock for Schubert, Maggy Krell wasn’t swayed. Krell – a state deputy attorney general with less than half the time in the legal profession as either Schubert or the third candidate in the race, assistant U.S. attorney Todd Leras – announced in April 2013 she would challenge the insiders’ pick.
In the months since, Krell has amassed an impressive endorsement list of her own. It includes top Sacramento area lawyers such as Tina Thomas and Joe Genshlea, as well as retired appellate Justice Rick Sims and retired Superior Court Judge Ronald Tochterman. Edward M. Imwinkelried and other UC Davis law professors have backed her, as have state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones.
Her current boss, state Attorney General Kamala Harris, has endorsed Krell. So has her old boss, the former attorney general and current governor, Jerry Brown. She also has won the endorsements of some key law enforcement labor groups, led by the Sacramento County Probation Officers Association.
Though a political novice, Krell has shown no hesitation when it comes to raising money. As of March 17, she had banked $286,000. That is about $60,000 less than Schubert had collected at that point, but more than enough in the eyes of political professionals to establish her as a serious candidate.
“I know I’m the underdog and people didn’t want me doing this,” Krell said. “And now that I’m a real threat and have a chance to win, they definitely don’t want me doing it. But I think our community needs an outsider’s perspective on the DA’s Office. The office needs a shake-up, a refresh, and a chance to move in a new direction.”
‘Voice for the voiceless’
Krell, 35, grew up in San Francisco’s affluent Forest Hill neighborhood, a leafy enclave of stately homes in the hills west of Twin Peaks and Mount Sutro. Over the years, luminaries such as former California Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown and Willie Mays have chosen Forest Hill as a place to live.
Her father, Bruce E. Krell, is a successful San Francisco personal injury attorney. He said he first noticed his daughter might have an aptitude for law “when she was 3 or 4 and she never lost an argument with me or anybody else.”
“As she matured, it became more and more clear she really enjoyed arguing, and it didn’t matter which side she was on,” her father said. “You could put her on one side of a debate, or push her over to the other side, and she’d argue that one just as effectively.”
At the Urban School, an exclusive, independent college preparatory school, he recalled, his daughter was named captain of the debate team and “won more trophies than I have cabinets.”
Krell attended the University of California, San Diego, as an undergrad and got her law degree from UC Davis, where the law school is named for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She graduated from King Hall in 2003 and began her prosecutor’s career with the state attorney general’s office, handling criminal appeals. She left the agency in 2004 to gain trial experience with the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office. A year later, she was back with the attorney general, where she coordinates the office’s human-trafficking and mortgage-fraud prosecutions.
“Look, I can’t say enough good things about Maggy,” said Chief Deputy Attorney General Nathan Barankin. “We have a heavy emphasis here on appellate litigation, but Maggy is one of our go-to trial prosecutors. She is just astounding. She has the ability and has done cases that she either has taken from scratch or that just land on her desk out of the blue that somebody else has dropped. She picks them up without missing a beat. She is so supremely competent and thorough you always know it is going to be handled well.”
Though raised in relative affluence, Krell said her experiences in adolescence inspired her to pursue a career as a prosecutor. Growing up in an urban environment where she met people from all over the city through sports, her job in a pizza parlor and just by taking the bus, Krell said some of the people she befriended were lawbreakers and street toughs who later got swallowed up by the system.
“My parents went to hell and back to keep me out of trouble,” Krell said. “Not everybody’s parents can do that for them. That’s why part of this is my dedication to those kids who are at risk who don’t have the same kind of safety net that I did.”
At the same time, she said, she saw other friends get beaten up and bullied and had one close friend who was raped.
“I don’t think there was one day where I said, ‘I want to be a prosecutor when I grow up,’ but all the things that make a prosecutor a prosecutor are things that I had in me,” she said. “That sense of passion for justice. The want and need to stick up for people, to make your community a better place. To be a voice for the voiceless.”
‘A new direction’
The idea of becoming the district attorney of Sacramento came quickly and almost on the fly, Krell said.
It was January 2013, and she had just presented a case to a special grand jury in Sacramento that returned a 66-count mortgage fraud indictment in Nevada County. The case, set for trial in October, charged two defendants with bilking investors out of more than $2.3 million over eight years. The indictments came down just days after Scully’s Jan. 7 announcement that she would not seek a sixth term as DA.
“Some of the grand jurors had conversations with me when the case was done, basically suggesting that I run for DA,” Krell said. “And that was the first time it got in my head, and I went and talked to some of the cops I had worked with about it, and I talked to some friends about it, and I got a lot of encouragement and support.”
At the time, Krell said, “I was living a pretty normal life. I was prosecuting major cases, really enjoying my work, really enjoying my husband and my kids (boys, ages 5 and 6), and this wasn’t on my radar.”
But Krell said she has always considered herself “a fighter” and “a fixer” and that the DA’s post offered a unique opportunity to work to better her community.
She said she ran the idea past Barankin, the chief deputy attorney general, and another top gun in the office, Special Assistant Attorney General David Druliner. “They were supportive,” Krell said.
A former Sacramento deputy DA, Druliner ran for the DA’s job along with Scully in 1994 in a challenge against incumbent Steve White, who is now a Sacramento Superior Court judge. Druliner lost to Scully, and in 1999 left the DA’s Office to work as a top assistant in the attorney general’s office. Krell said she considers him her mentor.
“She has a wisdom beyond her years that allows her to see and seek out the talent that is around her,” Druliner said. “I learn stuff from Maggy.”
In her 11 years as a prosecutor, Krell has tried 25 to 30 cases, she said.
Michael Rasmussen, a deputy district attorney in San Joaquin County, remembered her work on the vehicular manslaughter case in which a woman ran a red light and killed a grandmother. Krell pushed to take the case to trial, over the objections of the judge who thought it wasn’t worth more than an infraction.
“The judge said, ‘You’ll never win this,’ and sure enough she came back with a conviction,” Rasmussen said.
Rasmussen also remembered Krell, during her year in the office, going into some of the toughest neighborhoods in Stockton to serve subpoenas on witnesses.
“It was pretty scary stuff,” Rasmussen said.
Probably Krell’s most significant win in the attorney general’s office came in 2008 when Druliner sent her to Lassen County to take on a case that had languished for more than 20 years and had been written off as “unsolvable” and “not winnable,” according to former Sheriff Steve Warren.
When it was over, she obtained a first-degree murder conviction against Wayne Lee Bowen in the 1988 shooting death of a one-time associate in a Nevada burglary ring, Kevin Behm.
“Maggy did a good job, an excellent job,” said retired Lassen County sheriff’s Sgt. Bruce Stelzer. “She had all her ducks in a line. There was a time when no one believed that case would ever be made. Apparently the (Lassen) DA’s Office thought so. They went through two DAs, and they wouldn’t touch it.”
Krell also has had some moments of embarrassment in the courtroom. She once made reference in a closing argument to a defendant not taking the witness stand – a legal misstep that resulted in an appellate court overturning a 2007 conviction. In another case, she was forced back into court this year to have an inmate resentenced to state prison on a pimping and pandering conviction. She initially had him placed in county jail as a lower-level offender under the realignment law, when the defendant’s offense wasn’t eligible for consideration.
Still, Krell said her acceptance of innovative approaches to crime-fighting – most importantly, her embrace of the state’s 2011 realignment law shifting lower-level offenders to local custody and supervision – makes her uniquely qualified to be a law enforcement leader.
“People in the DA’s Office have had the perspective, ‘How dare she do this,’ ” Krell said. “To me, it’s simple. This is a democracy. I want to see the DA’s Office do more to improve our community. I want to take the office in a new direction. I think the county deserves better.”