Former Hilo man accused of sexually assaulting minors

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A prominent Maui organic farmer, originally from Hilo, is charged with sexually assaulting four minor girls on Hawaii Island between 1998 and 2007.

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A prominent Maui organic farmer, originally from Hilo, is charged with sexually assaulting four minor girls on Hawaii Island between 1998 and 2007.

Michael Martin Zelko, 57, of Lahaina was indicted Wednesday by a Hilo grand jury. The 13-count indictment charges Zelko with four counts of continuous sexual assault of a minor under the age of 14 and nine counts of first-degree sexual assault.

All of the 13 offenses are Class A felonies punishable by up to 20 years imprisonment under normal circumstances but prosecutors are using a law that allows them to seek life imprisonment with the possibility of parole for Zelko, arguing in the document “an extended term of imprisonment is necessary for the protection of the public and the defendant is a multiple offender in that defendant may be sentenced for two or more felonies.”

A bench warrant issued with the indictment set Zelko’s bail at $1 million.

Zelko was arrested on Maui and returned to Hilo, where he was in police custody Friday. He’s scheduled to be arraigned Monday before Hilo Circuit Judge Greg Nakamura.

Zelko is well-known in farming and gardening circles and conducts workshops statewide, including a talk about cooperative integrated farming last September at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. A brief bio on the website of Maui’s Haliimaile Community Garden describes Zelko as “a farmer, teacher and consultant throughout Hawaii” and “past president of Hawaii Sustainable Ag Association, owner of Zelko Farms, Hawaii Agricultural Products and Services and MidPacific Nutraceuticals.”

The alleged victims are now adult women between the ages of 21 and 25. The Tribune-Herald doesn’t publish the names of sex assault victims.

The youngest was 5 years old when the alleged sexual abuse started and all were younger than 10, according to the indictment.

One of the alleged victims spoke to the Tribune-Herald on Friday. She declined to go into specifics, citing the pending court case, but praised the work of Detective Jesse Kerr of Hawaii Police Department’s Juvenile Aid Section.

“He worked tirelessly on this case,” the woman said. “I was under the impression that there was nothing I could do about it for the longest time, and we had to accept it and move on. However, I learned when I went to (Kerr) that the statute of limitations had changed in 2014 … and that we could still create a case against (Zelko). … It was an amazing realization that I could do something about it, and anyone who has been sexually assaulted needs to know that the statute of limitations has changed and they could step forward and do something about it.”

The statute of limitations on first-degree sexual assault previously was six years from the time of the act — or if the victim was a minor when the offense occurred, six years from the date the victim turned 18. The change adopted in 2014 eliminates the statute of limitations for first- and second-degree sexual assault, and continuous sexual assault of a minor under the age of 14.

The woman encouraged others who are or have been victims of sexual abuse to come forward.

“There is help out there, a network of people who care,” she said. “I came forward because I felt like if I didn’t come forward now and take a stand, then I didn’t really do anything to defend other people and protect other people, or stand up for what we went through and what I went through.

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“I can’t have this happen to any other little girls, and if I don’t take a stand and protect them from someone who did something horrible to me, (he) may do it again to someone else.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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