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'She wanted to help out the community'

By Mike Genet mike.genet@examiner.net

About 18 months ago, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker promoted JoEllen Engelbart into the special victims unit of the prosecutor’s office, which included working with victims of child abuse and sex crimes.

“She got a much harder job,” Peters Baker said. “When someone can do that work and it doesn’t make you bitter and doesn’t change your personality, you have a really special person, and that was JoEllen.”

Friends and family remember Jackson County Assistant Prosecutor JoEllen Engelbart as working hard in a challenging job and as one who made those around her better.

Engelbart, 32, died Saturday from complications of COVID-19. She died a few days after giving birth to her and husband Matthew’s first child, Ross Matthew. Their son was delivered three months early due to Engelbart’s sudden illness. 

Her uncle, defense attorney Ross Nigro, said Engelbart was in a job she’d always wanted and was thrilled for her expected new role as a mother.

“That was her goal, to become a prosecutor; she wanted to help out the community, and she wanted to help people,” Nigro said. “She truly valued and loved that position.”

“She was always mother hen anyways in the office. She loved the role she played as a prosecutor, making people better. When you see the outpouring from defense attorneys even, that loved her, that says something.”

Peters Baker said “sweet” is the first thought that will come to mind about Engelbart.

“The opposite of what you normally think of prosecutors,” she said. “No ego, but somehow she had a big personality. I’ve met so many big personalities in law, and many times they can be jerks, but she was very likable. And when I say she was sweet, that doesn’t mean she was a pushover or not tough.”

A native of the metro area, Engelbart went to law school at UMKC and then interned with the local U.S. attorney’s office and also the prosecutor’s office in downtown Kansas City before Peters Baker hired her six years ago to work in the prosecutor’s Independence office. 

“She actually ran our internship program there,” Peters Baker said. “She had just turned that over to another person.”

Engelbart had been putting together a program within the prosecutor’s office to grade domestic violence offenders – determining who could be helped and who presented a greater chance of harming people, for example – something that became even more important amid the pandemic, Peters Baker said. Now, the county prosecutor says she’ll have to evaluate and decide who best can carry on that work.

“I felt like it was heading in the right direction,” she said.

Engelbart contracted the virus in December despite a healthy fear and taking precautions, her friends and family have said, particularly given her pregnancy and asthma. Engelbart’s friend and colleague, Kelly Collins, started a GoFundMe online account Sunday to help with her and her son’s medical bills, and it has raised more than $111,000 as of Tuesday morning, after an initial goal of $20,000.

“Jo really hung on, after she was in the hospital,” Peters Baker said.

JoEllen and Matthew’s son will be in a hospital NICU for several more weeks, but the baby is doing well for the circumstances and gaining weight, Nigro said.

“I don’t think it’s fully hit him yet,” Nigro said of Engelbart’s husband, “and he’s spending all the time he can with the baby. I know he appreciates all the support he’s gotten.”