Former Orthodox Jewish counselor gets 15 years for child molestation

By Kathleen Hopkins(Asbury Park Press)
October 18, 2013

After watching his former camp counselor try to avoid responsibility for molesting him during a nine-hour hearing on Thursday, a 16-year-old boy faced his abuser in court as a judge sentenced him to 15 years in prison.

Superior Court Judge Francis R. Hodgson imposed the prison term shortly before 11:30 p.m. on Yosef Kolko, 38, a former counselor at an Orthodox Jewish camp in Lakewood.

Before the sentence was handed down, the victim, who was 11 and 12 years old when he was molested by Kolko in 2008 and 2009, confronted his former camp counselor.

“Molesting may seem harmless to you, but the reality is, it kills people,” the victim said. “How can you ignore the tears and open wounds when you know how much you hurt me? You ganged up on me and hurt me again.”

The victim and his family were ostracized in Lakewood’s Orthodox community for bringing the child’s allegations to secular authorities and breaking the religious tradition of having rabbis handle such problems. The family has since moved to Michigan, but made a 12-hour trip by bus for the sentencing hearing and an earlier hearing that stretched from the afternoon until 11 p.m. on Kolko’s bid to retract his guilty plea.

Kolko’s attorney, Alan Zegas, argued Kolko should be allowed to withdraw his plea to the molestation charges because he was coerced into making the admissions by members of the Orthodox community who didn’t want the bad publicity from a trial.

Hodgson, following the marathon hearing, rejected that argument.

“I find that there was no coercion,” Hodgson ruled. “There was gentle persuasion by friends. I find the defendant set out before he pleaded guilty to game the system.”

Kolko, 38, of Geffen Drive in Lakewood, pleaded guilty May 13 — while his trial was under way — to aggravated sexual assault, attempted aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child. Kolko was the victim’s camp counselor at Yachad, a summer camp that is run by the Yeshiva Bais Hatorah School on Swarthmore Avenue in Lakewood. He also was a teacher at Yeshiva Orchos Chaim in Lakewood.

Zegas, during an uninterrupted hearing that lasted about eight hours, argued to Hodgson that Kolko was subjected to “constant pressure” from the Orthodox community to plead guilty, and, because of the pressure, Kolko should be allowed to retract his plea.

However, Kolko’s previous attorney, Michael Bachner, one of seven witnesses at the hearing on whether to allow the guilty plea to be withdrawn, testified there was no coercion.

Senior Assistant Ocean County Prosecutor Laura Pierro called Bachner to testify after six witnesses testified on behalf of Kolko, describing an effort by many people in the community to try and convince him to plead guilty.

“He was never being threatened,” Bachner said of Kolko. “I didn’t feel he was being coerced. He never indicated to me he was being pressured.”

Kolko’s decision to plead guilty came after revelations that two more victims had come forward, Bachner said. When Kolko learned that news, “His face turned white, his jaw dropped,” Bachner said.

Proceedings lasted until 11:30 p.m., after the judge assured the attorneys and the victim’s family they would be over the same day.

Zegas at the onset tried to get an adjournment, saying he had not had adequate time to prepare his witnesses. But Senior Assistant Ocean County Prosecutor Laura Pierro pointed out the victim and his family sat on a bus for 12 hours for a trip from Michigan at their own expense for the hearing.

“We’re going to go as long as it takes today,” Hodgson told the attorneys.

Among the witnesses called by Zegas to support the claim that Kolko was acting under duress when he pleaded guilty to the charges was Moshe Siegfried, a seventh-grade teacher at Yeshiva Bais Hatorah.

“There was an offer of $100,000 and a job when he got out of jail if he would plead guilty,” Siegfried testified, describing some of the community efforts to get Kolko to plead guilty. He did not specify who made the offer.

But Kolko repeatedly maintained his innocence up until the point where he finally did plead guilty, Siegfried said.

Another witness called to testify by Zegas described how he and four others showed up at Kolko’s home around 1:30 a.m. on the morning that the defendant eventually did plead guilty in an effort to get him to do so.

“I gave him a pretty good description of what prison would be like,” Moshe Rothberg, a therapist from Lakewood, testified. “I sort of described to him what it would be like to get attacked by much bigger men, tougher men, scarier men ... and why he should probably play ball. Well, he maintained his innocence.”

“His defense mechanism was wearing down” as the meeting went on, Rothberg testified. “He was more receptive to the cost-benefit analysis we were presenting.”

The defendant’s brother, Shabsi Kolko, testified his brother handed him a note just before he pleaded guilty. The note said, “All that I plead to is under duress and pressure, and is only being done to save my life,” Shabsi Kolko testified.

Yosef Kolko will have to serve 85 percent of the 15-year term before he can be considered for release on parole.