For 14 years, Napa County Superior Court Judge Stephen Kroyer presided over more criminal cases than he can count, many of them receiving high-profile media attention.
Now, Kroyer’s gavel is silent: He retired from the bench last month to focus his time on his family and his battle with prostate cancer.
Kroyer, whose boyish face and grin make it hard to believe he is 60, was diagnosed with cancer in 2008.
“I opted for surgery to treat the cancer,” he said.
“For about a year and a half it looked positive for me. Then the cancer resurfaced, and it’s in the advanced stage.”
Even knowing he made the right decision to leave the bench, Kroyer said, he's still disappointed.
“I really wanted to work another six years before I retired.”
In an exclusive Napa Patch interview, Kroyer recalled one of the memorable civil matters that came before him, a 1991 Ponzi scheme:
“It involved millions of dollars in losses to investors,” Kroyer said. “It lasted for months.”
Kroyer also recalls the criminal case over the 2001 traffic deaths of a vacationing New Zealand father, 38, and 9-year-old son who, with another son and the children’s mother, were driving along Highway 29 when their rental car was struck by a truck driven by a sober but infuriated motorist.
“It was a horrific case. It was the first second-degree murder conviction of driving not involving alcohol/drugs in the county,” Kroyer said. “I still think of that case often.”
In that widely-reported case, a young man from Calistoga was driving southbound on Highway 29, north of St. Helena, in his utility truck when he spotted the mother of his child driving in the opposite direction.
The man in the truck made a U-turn and began passing other vehicles to catch up with her.
At the Bothe State Park entrance south of Calistoga, he slammed his truck head on into the New Zealanders' rental car.
The father and his son were killed instantly. The mother and other son suffered minor injuries. The driver received a sentence of 15 years to life in prison.
But Kroyer said the hardest case he ever presided over involved three young children who were physically abused.
“There was a video of it. I remember looking at it, and to this day, it still gives me nightmares.”
Kroyer said his biggest regret is “not having his children earlier.”
"I didn’t have my kids until I was 40,” he said. “I missed out on not being a father for about 15 years.
"I will also miss seeing my children grow older and may never have the chance to see my grandchildren.”
Born at Fort Riley, Kansas, “I was an Army brat," Kroyer says.
"My dad, a surgeon, had an Army career,” he said.
“When I was 6 weeks old, my father was assigned to Korea to a real 'MASH' (medical unit),” Kroyer continued.
“I lived in Europe and Asia. It was a great experience growing up learning several cultures.”
On his way to the bench, Kroyer first followed a calling to cinematography, working for NBC-TV in Houston, Texas and making independent films.
Although he gloried on the work, he also had a yearning for a law-enforcement career.
In the 1970s, Kroyer experienced a tragedy that has always remained with him.
“A family member was the victim of a horrific crime, and I decided at that point I wanted to devote my life to help victims of crime, and the community,” he said,
Kroyer went to Western State University College of Law in Fullerton (southern California) to earn his degree. He worked with a financial firm during the day to put himself through college.
“My goal was to be a prosecutor and then a judge,” he said.
He worked as a Napa police officer and a Napa County deputy district attorney until he was appointed to the bench by California governor Pete Wilson.
“I am so blessed with my career. I have enjoyed every minute of it,” he said.
Scott Snowden, retired Napa County superior judge, worked with Kroyer for many years.
“I’m sure there are many people who will rave about Steve as a judge, and rightly so. But I vividly remember his work as a prosecutor,” Snowden said.
“In my career as a judge and now as an arbitrator, I would rule Steve as the top litigator in the county," Snowden continued.
"Steve is a brilliant trial lawyer. He made no false moves. He knows the law and had the strategic knowledge to win a case.
“Steve doesn’t have an aggressive personality, so I’m sure many attorneys who went up against him didn’t realize what they were in for,” Snowden said.
Kroyer said dealing with lawyers arguing a case can be challenging.
“They all have different styles. Some just present the facts, others can be flamboyant.”
Napa County Superior Court Judge Ray Guadagni has a “high respect” for Kroyer’s preparation and organizational traits.
“Steve is extremely meticulous. You walk into his chambers and his desk is totally void of papers, notes and other paperwork. You almost wouldn’t know anyone worked there,” Guadagni said.
Kroyer’s office may be tidy and uncluttered, but it is far from sterile and unwelcoming, Guadagni said.
“He has many, many family pictures lining his walls and on his bookshelves: neatly, of course.”
Guadagni also praises Kroyer for his work behind the scenes at the courthouse.
“Steve works with the clerks and other judges to make sure everything is structured. And he never seeks any praise or recognition for it. And I can’t forget to mention his wonderful sense of humor.”
Kroyer said his illness has affected him and his family “profoundly.”
“I worked very hard to become a judge and so enjoyed it. I miss it every day. My family has been right there with me every step of the way,” he said.
Kroyer said the difference between being a mediator and an advocate is that a lawyer has his job defined for him.
“As a judge, I have to make the decisions. I must follow the law at all times. It’s the law that makes the rulings, not what the judge thinks,” he said.
“I may not agree with the law, but I never get my personal feelings involved.”
Cancer is another matter: Kroyer wants to spread the word about prostate cancer awareness.
For years, he said, he has had an annual checkup and had PSA readings to diagnose prostate cancer.
“If caught early, treatment for cancer can be highly successful,” he said. “I strongly urge all men to have their PSA checked at least once a year.”
Kroyer, his wife Janet have two children: Lindsay, 20, a student at Colgate University in upstate New York and Kevin, who will be a senior at .
Kroyer’s wish for his legacy is quite simple — “I want to be remembered as a happy and successful man, who loved his family,” he said.