Child molester agrees to plea deal

  • JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald Michael Zelko, right, appears Friday in Hilo Circuit Court with attorney Michael Green.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect sentencing date.

A prominent Maui organic farmer who molested four minor girls on Hawaii Island between 1998 and 2007 will be sentenced to prison on lesser charges.

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Michael Martin Zelko pleaded no contest Friday to 11 counts of third-degree sexual assault.

Hilo Circuit Judge Greg Nakamura ordered the 59-year-old Lahaina man to return at 8:30 a.m. May 20 for sentencing.

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. In exchange for his no contest plea, prosecutors reduced 11 of the charges to Class C felonies and dismissed two charges.

According to terms of the plea agreement outlined in court, Zelko will be sentenced to five years in prison, and the Hawaii Paroling Authority will decide how much time he will ultimately serve for the offenses.

According to the original indictment dated Aug. 10, 2016, the youngest victim was 5 years old when the sexual abuse started, and all were younger than 10. All are adults now. The Tribune-Herald doesn’t identify sexual assault victims unless they choose to go public.

Nakamura asked Zelko’s attorney, Michael Green, about the facts in the amended charges in the plea deal.

“You know, we’re not required under a no contest plea to go through the facts,” Green replied. “… We’re pleading no contest, but we’re not agreeing that they actually happened.”

Green requested the judge allow the removal of Zelko’s electronic monitoring ankle bracelet, which Nakamura ordered in November 2016 to allow Zelko to return to Maui from Hilo after bail was reduced from $1 million to $260,000. Green said the bracelet caused Zelko’s ankle to swell.

Deputy Prosecutor Kimberly Angay objected to the bracelet’s removal.

“The state notes defendant has been wearing this ankle bracelet 2 1/2 years,” Angay said. “We only have, what, two months left before his last court date and the time he would take it off. The state would submit it’s the most important hearing, and that’s showing up for sentencing and going into custody.”

Green argued that if Zelko violated terms and conditions of bail, “it goes back to all those A felonies.”

“Maybe he doesn’t get the A felonies, but he gets … the possibility of consecutive sentences, so that’s 55 years,” Nakamura replied, and granted the defense motion to remove the bracelet.

“Mr. Zelko has pled, and he’s open to consecutive sentencing if he doesn’t appear,” the judge said.

Zelko, who is free on bail awaiting sentencing, is well-known in farming and gardening circles and, prior to his indictment, conducted workshops statewide.

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A brief bio on the website of Maui’s Haliimaile Community Garden, which apparently has since been removed, described 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.”

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

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