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FBI retiree reviews his career. The imprisoned mob boss wished the retiring agent well.
By PATRICIA MEADE, Youngstown VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER
BOARDMAN — Robert G. Kroner Jr. would be a retired math teacher today — if his dad, a Pittsburgh cop, hadn't worked extra duty at a garage where FBI agents parked.
In 1971, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was on a hiring binge.
In the garage one day, the agents said, "What about your son?"
With his father's encouragement, the 25-year-old math teacher at South Fayette Junior High School (near Pittsburgh) applied.
Then he married Arlene.
"I was one of the last agents sworn in under Hoover," Kroner said Thursday. "I had no idea what to expect. I learned a lot in a short period of time about legal issues and internal rules."
FBI training took place in the old post office building in Washington, D.C., and firearms instruction in Quantico, Va.
For the next 31 years, Kroner fit Hollywood central casting's idea of an FBI special agent: dark suit, white shirt, loafers, neat, short-cropped hair, polite and professional at all times.
He retired from the bureau Thursday, a bit misty-eyed.
With just hours to go, he sat in the FBI conference room on Sierra Trail and talked about his family, his career and his plans. His new part-time job as a lawyer's private investigator begins Monday.
"My wife and I decided it was a good time to leave," Kroner said. "I'll be 56 in two weeks."
He could have worked another year. The mandatory retirement age for FBI agents is 57.
Kroner's career began in Albany, N.Y.
Next came Cleveland in 1972. He and Arlene bought a house.
The city on the lake offered the type of crime that would turn out to be Kroner's specialty — the organized kind. He investigated loan sharking, gambling and police corruption.
Wanting to be nearer his family in Pittsburgh, Kroner asked for a transfer to Youngstown.
"I knew from working organized crime that there was very good work here for those types of investigations," he said.
The transfer came in July 1976, when the bureau was located in Austintown with about 10 agents.
He and Arlene bought another house. Daughters Kelly, 26, and newly married Karen, 25, rounded out the family.
The early cases involved gangland murders. Kroner learned who locally had ties to La Cosa Nostra in Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
Organized crime, he said, is a constant learning process.
"As we got better, they got better. As we would bring them to prosecution, they would learn the techniques that we used to catch them," Kroner said. "They'd be much more discreet and confidential in what they did and try to avoid us."
Most of the mobsters are dead now. Some, like Joey Naples, Charles Carabbia and Ernie Biondillo, died by assassins' bullets. Others, such as Jimmy Prato, died as old men.
It didn't take Kroner long to pick the highlight of his long career.
He chose Lenny Strollo, the one who lived to break omerta, the Mafia vow of silence.
The Strollo case, which snowballed to more than 70 convictions, is a good example of what law enforcement agencies can accomplish by working together, he said. The FBI worked the case with the IRS, the Ohio Bureau of
Criminal Identification and Investigation and others.
Kroner saw Strollo "this year" (that's as specific as he would get) and told the aging imprisoned mob boss of his retirement. He said Strollo wished him well.
The exit interview had to touch on James A. Traficant Jr., the ex-congressman who repeatedly lambasted Kroner once the investigation went public in January 2000.
The bureau had made a conscious, albeit secret, decision that Kroner not be involved in the "new" Traficant investigation.
The photo that ran in The Vindicator in 1982 (and again today) of Kroner and FBI Special Agent Larry Lynch escorting Traficant away in handcuffs explains the reasoning. Traficant, then Mahoning County sheriff, won acquittal in 1983 by defending himself against bribery charges.
"I certainly understood the decision. It was a wise decision," Kroner said. "If I was involved this time, he would argue vendetta."
Traficant, not knowing Kroner was not on the case, screamed vendetta.
With just a hint of a smile, Kroner said he was somewhat amused that Traficant didn't know the truth until almost the end. Kroner said by allowing the focus to remain on him, he kept the focus off the two agents, Mike Pikunas and Rich Denholm, who were investigating Traficant.
"I initially found it amusing that [Traficant] didn't know, until he began the personal attacks on me and my family," Kroner said. "When you're involved in law enforcement and you're doing your job, you realize that people are going to change the focus from themselves and what they're doing."
Kroner stayed away from Traficant's 10-week corruption trial but showed up on July 30 when the judge handed down an eight-year sentence. The now-retired agent thought the judge was fair and found satisfaction in the work done by the FBI.
He recalled another thought from the sentencing: How sad that a man with so much talent ended up the way Traficant did.
Kroner and his wife plan to stay in the Valley. They feel very good about this area and would like to see it recover.
He'll golf, do some yard work. No big vacation plans, just some car trips.
"I've never been much of a fun guy," he chuckled.
What Kroner will miss most about the job he loved for 31 years is the friends he made along the way. He says he won't miss the thrill of the investigation, even though he has as much enthusiasm as ever.
Well, maybe he will miss the thrill.
"Sometimes we worked incredible hours," he said. "It was extremely important to have a supportive wife and family. They understood when I missed birthdays and holidays."
He wants to be remembered as someone who tried to make this community a better place to live.
Kroner won't say no if someone is willing to help him write a book about 30-plus years of organized crime in the Mahoning Valley.
"You've seen my affidavits — they'd put anyone to sleep," he said, laughing.
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