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Niagara DA Caroline Wojtaszek plans to run for county judge seat

Niagara County District Attorney Caroline A. Wojtaszek said Wednesday that she will run for county judge in 2020 instead of seeking a second term as DA.

Wojtaszek hopes to succeed Judge Sara Sheldon, who is ineligible to run for a third 10-year term because she reaches the state's mandatory judicial retirement age of 70 next year.

"The new political calendar dictates an early announcement with the primary being in June," said Wojtaszek, 47, a North Tonawanda Democrat.

"I am going to go for every party," Wojtaszek said.

She's the sister-in-law of State Supreme Court Justice Paul B. Wojtaszek and the wife of Henry F. Wojtaszek, former Niagara County Republican Party chairman, who is now president and CEO of Western Regional Off-Track Betting.

Niagara's other county judge seat will be filled by voters in 2021, when Judge Matthew J. Murphy III turns 70, but Wojtaszek said she didn't want to wait until then.

"I could have run for DA and then run (for judge) the next year, but that would seem disingenuous," she said.

Wojtaszek said her plate will be full next year.

Besides running an election campaign, she will be the lead prosecutor in the Jan. 13 trial of Joseph H. Belstadt, charged with the 1993 murder of Mandy Steingasser of North Tonawanda, and in the March 30 trial of William Shrubsall, the former killer and sex offender who is charged with jumping bail in 1996.

And new state laws regarding bail and evidence sharing requirements for police and prosecutors take effect Jan. 1.

"I've got to navigate my office and law enforcement through the new criminal justice reforms. I have the Steingasser trial, and I have the Shrubsall trial," Wojtaszek said.

High-profile cases are nothing new for Wojtaszek, who in 2017 became the first woman to serve as Niagara County district attorney.

She was a top prosecutor in the county from 1998 to 2010, when she resigned to become Sheldon's confidential law clerk, a post she held until her election as DA.

More than 20 years ago, Wojtaszek was an intern in the DA's Office when she crafted a protocol on the handling of domestic violence cases that remains in effect today.

After the University at Buffalo Law School graduate passed the bar exam, Murphy, who was then district attorney, hired her for the Special Victims Unit.

Wojtaszek also handled other major crimes, including the convictions of three defendants for the brutal murder of 16-year-old Jennifer Bolender in Niagara Falls.

"To this day, it's still the most brutal and gruesome crime I've ever come across in my career," Wojtaszek told The News in September, when she opposed parole for one of the three men who took part in the Dec. 14, 2002, killing on a pedestrian overpass above the LaSalle Expressway. Today it's called the Jennifer Bolender Memorial Overpass.

She still keeps a small photo of Bolender in her office.

"I don't want to ever forget her and why I do this work," Wojtaszek told The News.

Though she admits she considered seeking a State Supreme Court seat, Wojtaszek said she decided to run for County Court, where the caseload is criminal.

"That's really all of my background. It's my wheelhouse," she said.

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