The air is crisp and clear as Missoula County attorney hopeful Kirsten Pabst stomps through the pasture to wrangle in the family horse, Sadie, and pony, Chloe.
Pabst and 5-year-old son Finn – who is busy pulling dead rhubarb from the thawing ground – are waiting for their “veterinarian extraordinaire” Angela Clark to administer the animals’ vaccinations.
Despite her severe allergies, Pabst has a menagerie of animals. Aside from Sadie and Chloe, she has two large dogs and several aquariums with scores baby angel fish.
The vet eventually pulls her truck into the Pabsts’ drive, jumps out and starts examining the animals.
“She doesn’t look too chubby does she? It’s so hard for me to tell,” Pabst asks the vet, gently reassuring the thoroughbred-quarter horse mix in hushed tones.
For nearly two decades, quiet mornings like this were hard to come by for the 46-year-old, who spent most of her career prosecuting criminal cases under Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg’s leadership.
If Pabst becomes the next county attorney, days like this may be even fewer.
But she’s ready to enter the fray, saying her 18-year tenure in the office gives her an edge over opponent Josh Van de Wetering. (The race will be decided in June’s Democratic primary, as there is no Republican candidate.)
“I know the inner workings of how the office works,” she said. “I definitely have some clear ideas where improvement can be made. As county attorney, I would be able to make those improvements.”
Early in 2012, Pabst switched gears and went into private law practice on her own – despite being the heir apparent to the county attorney’s seat.
“I really loved it and I loved the work,” Pabst said later. “It just got to a point ... I was spending so much time working that I needed to take a break and spend time with my family and my horses.”
Aside from a much-needed respite for herself and her family, Pabst said the decision to step away was also related to a sense of frustration that had been building for many years.
“I was in a place where I was really trying to effectuate positive change and I was running into barriers and it was difficult to do,” she said. “As county attorney, I will be in a better place to make that happen.”
In June 2012 – shortly after leaving the county attorneys’ office – Pabst sat down with the U.S. Department of Justice and discussed improvements she thought the Missoula County Attorney’s Office needed, she said. A month earlier, the Justice Department had announced an investigation into the county’s alleged mishandling of sexual assaults from 2008 to 2012 – years when Pabst served as lead prosecutor.
She said she suggested major improvements in the office, including the addition of an in-house investigator and a witness-victim coordinator to assist the county attorney in prosecuting violent crimes and keeping victims informed. She also suggested that deputy county attorneys needed more training in prosecuting sexual assault, domestic violence and other violent crimes, she said.
Those improvements are the same suggestions the DOJ outlined in a draft agreement sent to the Missoula County Attorney’s Office in 2013.
Pabst is critical of Van Valkenburg’s refusal to cooperate with the DOJ. He filed suit in February against the department, arguing the federal agency lacks jurisdiction over his locally elected office.
The DOJ fired back Feb. 14 with a 20-page report highlighting what Pabst calls “sensational” allegations against the office that reportedly occurred on her watch.
In the report, the DOJ said one attorney allegedly told the mother of a 5-year-old girl who had been sexually assaulted that boys will be boys. Another prosecutor allegedly quoted Bible verses to a victim of sexual assault.
Pabst doubts the validity of those anecdotes, insisting the office “would not have tolerated” that kind of behavior under her leadership.
Still, she disagrees with Van Valkenburg’s handling of the investigation, claiming if she were at the helm, she would “look ahead with more of a cooperative attitude.”
“Do we let the DOJ come in and slap us around?” she asked. “Of course not, but my understanding is they came in with an attitude of cooperation years ago and the requests made of them are not unreasonable.”
Despite all the tension and the legal battles surrounding the County Attorney’s Office, Pabst said she is ready to get back in the thick of it – with a commitment to serving victims as a centerpiece of her campaign.
Dressed in a blue blouse, black pants and heels, Pabst sits at her desk. The county courthouse – as if illuminating her career goals – is prominently featured through the window behind her. The office is warm and inviting.
She shares the building – but not a practice – with attorneys Tim Strauch and David Paoli. Both are staunch supporters of her campaign.
“She’s tough and she’s got common sense. And she’s fair,” Strauch said. “You don’t prosecute everything that comes before you. You need common sense to be able to do that. She’s got it.”
Paoli echoes Strauch’s commendations, emphasizing her toughness.
“At the same time, she’s compassionate and will listen,” he said. “She doesn’t always have to be the person on point or the person that always has the correct answer to get things done, and I think that’s laudable in somebody who is going to lead this office.”
Strauch describes Pabst as an active community member who shares her legal expertise by consistently teaching and speaking at seminars.
He also praises her 99 percent successful prosecution rate.
Despite years of prosecuting cases, Pabst retains a human touch, Paoli added.
“Kirsten has developed lifelong relationships with people who have been the victims of crimes,” Paoli said. “She stays connected to real people.”
Pabst’s commitment to victims is juxtaposed against several high-profile rape cases where she played a prominent role.
Last year, Pabst represented University of Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson in a rape case involving another student, who was represented by Van de Wetering. Pabst said she was surprised at the community’s “emotional response” to the proceedings and her decision to represent Johnson, who was acquitted after a 12-day trial.
“It was more divisive than it should have been,” she said. “I understand why some people were initially concerned, but I think we would all agree that everyone deserves representation. Everyone deserves to have a jury of his or her peers.”
“And Jordan was innocent,” she said.
The trial elicited a negative reaction from some of Pabst’s former colleagues at the Missoula County Attorney’s Office.
Deputy County Attorney Jen Clark said Pabst employed rape stereotypes and rape myths in her defense of Johnson. Clark admits that defense attorneys use such tactics, but it was shocking to witness that coming from a former colleague and prosecutor, she said.
Pabst has also come under fire for testifying at a UM expulsion hearing for a student accused of raping a woman in her dorm several years ago. At the time, Pabst was the chief county prosecutor and declined to file charges against the man.
She didn’t testify on behalf of the accused, but rather explained the standard of proof to the jury at the hearing, she said.
“I didn’t really testify because I didn’t have any personal knowledge (of the incident),” she explained. “It wasn’t as nefarious as everyone is making it out to be.”
She said the case was open on her desk when Van de Wetering, who was representing the alleged assailant, called her and requested that she testify at the hearing.
Pabst said she declined to file charges against him because “it wasn’t a prosecutable case,” but the man was ultimately expelled from the university.
Van de Wetering and his endorsers, including former county prosecutor Dale Mrkich, are skeptical of Pabst’s commitment to victims, in part because she – under Van Valkenburg’s leadership – was the chief criminal prosecutor during the years the DOJ alleged the office mishandled sexual assault cases.
“In the last couple of years, she wasn’t very engaged as a supervisor and a mentor,” Clark said.
Clark also offered that her former boss “burned bridges” with other agencies, like First Step, Just Response and the Crime Victim Advocates Office.
“I am concerned about the future working relationships and communication with those agencies, particularly when dealing with sexual assault cases,” Clark said.
In her defense, Pabst said that she is intent on mending the relationships with colleagues who may have been harmed when she left the office and decided to represent Johnson.
She said her former colleagues are professionals who are capable of burying the hatchet.
“We will just get to work,” she said. “We will roll up our sleeves and get to work.”
Pabst and those who surround her point to her 18 years in the prosecutor’s office as evidence to her commitment to the job. On the other hand, Van de Wetering has “bounced around” from job to job, they claim.
They also say her life experiences bring a depth and understanding that Van de Wetering may lack. As a domestic violence survivor, she is able to relate to other victims of violence, she said.
“I have more life experiences than I think most people deserve,” she said. “I don’t like to draw attention to myself and what I have been through, but I just really understand people and I understand pain.”
The child of hardworking, blue-collar parents, Pabst was born overseas but spent most of her childhood in Havre. When times got lean, Pabst’s family would hole up in a converted garage for extended periods of time. The garage, she said, didn’t have running water in the winter.
Her adult life has perhaps had the most tragedy.
Pabst was a single mom, washing dishes at a restaurant, when she decided to pursue a legal career. She obtained her paralegal degree and then enrolled at UM’s Law School. She was a prosecutor for several years in Great Falls until former County Attorney Dusty Deschamps recruited her to work in Missoula County in 1997.
More than 10 years later, she lost her son, Sam, in a terrible accident.
“When you look at the individual as a whole and look at all her life experiences – she didn’t have an easy upbringing. As a matter of fact, it was tough and difficult,” Paoli said of his colleague. “Having gone through that gives you a degree of empathy, an opportunity to reflect on what regular folks go through in their day-to-day affairs.”