HILO — The lawyer of a man convicted of sexually molesting four underage girls said Monday a victim who spoke in court is “lucky this case didn’t go to trial.”
Honolulu attorney Michael Green impugned the statement of the victim, now an adult, at the sentencing of prominent Maui organic farmer Michael Zelko. The 59-year-old Zelko, who, in a deal with prosecutors, pleaded no contest to 11 counts of third-degree sexual assault, was sentenced by Hilo Circuit Judge Greg Nakamura to five years in prison. The Hawaii Paroling Authority will decide how much time Zelko will ultimately serve.
He was also ordered to pay $1,155 to the Crime Victim Compensation Commission and $32.65 to the DNA registry fund.
Zelko originally was charged with four counts of continuous sexual assault of a minor under the age of 14 and nine counts of first-degree sexual assault, all Class A felonies punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
According to the original indictment dated Aug. 10, 2016, the offenses took place on Hawaii Island between 1998 and 2007. The youngest victim was 5 years old when the sexual abuse started and all were younger than 10.
Deputy Prosecutor Evans Smith told the judge the prison time is appropriate because of the “need to protect the children of this community.”
“Four children were traumatized by the defendant’s action. In fact, we’re talking about him repeatedly having sexual contact with minors under 14,” Smith said.
One of the victims, whom the Tribune-Herald is not identifying, addressed the court. The woman said she was 5 when she met Zelko, and added, “What Mike Zelko did to me has negatively impacted every single aspect of my life.”
The woman said she has suffered post-traumatic stress disorder for 15 years.
“I had flashbacks, panic attacks, nightmares and years that I wished I would die in my sleep,” she said. “I spent years feeling damaged, ruined, like something is wrong. In reality, nothing was wrong with me. I was being sexually assaulted by a pedophile. … I was traumatized.
“It was not my fault that I was unable to verbalize the horrible things that Mike Zelko was doing until I was older.”
The woman said she’s grateful for the opportunity to speak, but added the court proceeding “is not justice.”
“Being re-traumatized for years by the court system is not justice,” she said. “After serving his sentence, Mike will have a possibility of living a life free of consequences, other than being a registered sex offender. I will be impacted by his atrocious, vile actions for the rest of my life. … Nothing that happens in this courtroom today will erase the trauma that this rapist, Mike Zelko, inflicted on me. I am not doing this for me. I reported to keep my community safe. I reported to protect other children. … I did this to keep every single child in Mike Zelko’s life safe from this horrific predator.”
The victim noted a trial would’ve allowed her federally protected medical and counseling records to be scrutinized in open court.
“You were going to allow my therapy records, the things I used to heal from Mike Zelko’s abuse, to be used against me by Mike Zelko and his attorney in a public courtroom,” she said. “There’s no place I can talk to a professional without having my private thoughts and feelings shared with the person who had already traumatized me in ways you can’t fathom. I couldn’t write in a journal. I couldn’t talk to a therapist. And I will never get my childhood back. But I continued with this soul-crushing process to prevent Mike Zelko from stealing another little girl’s joy.
“… Nothing you can do will erase the scars that Mike Zelko has caused. But you can prevent other little girls from being sexually assaulted by this pedophile for five years. You can give him the maximum amount of prison time. You can give every single child on the Big Island, on Maui, in the entire state of Hawaii five years of safety from this pedophile.”
Green took apparent umbrage at the woman’s description of Zelko.
“She’s lucky this case didn’t go to trial. I will tell you that,” Green told the judge. “Therapy? She went to seven different psychiatrists or psychologists and she accused some other kid’s father of doing the same thing to her.”
“So, Mr. Green,” Nakamura interjected, but Green went on.
“I know we’re getting an ‘open five,’” Green continued, referring to the parole board setting the actual time his client will serve of the five-year sentence. “We’ll take the open five. He’s not a pedophile. He pled no contest.
“She should be happy that’s the way it ends.”
“Mr. Green, I think it’s not appropriate to go after a complaining witness,” Nakamura said.
“Your Honor, you know we went through two and a half or more years of this,” Green replied. “The state made the decision to throw out (the Class A felonies). Let him plead no contest. And now we have to sit up here with (Zelko’s) daughter and his family and hear her calling him things like that? When she knows better.
“But nevertheless, we made the deal. He’s getting the open five. … But she was seeing psychologists and psychiatrists long before she met him.”
“That’s not this complaining witness that made the statement, Mr. Green,” Nakamura said.
Zelko spoke briefly, but didn’t address the victims or apologize. Instead, he thanked the judge for reducing his $1 million bail to $260,000 and for allowing his ankle monitor to be removed after his no contest plea in March.
Zelko said those decisions allowed him “to see my mom and my daughter more often.”
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.