According to the Asbury Park Press, 37-year-old Rabbi (sic) Yosef Kolko’s September 6th sentencing was postponed when his new lawyer informed that court that he would be submitting a motion to void his guilty plea. Judge Francis R. Hodgson “scheduled a hearing on the motion for Oct. 17. If Zegas doesn’t convince the judge to allow his client to withdraw his guilty plea, Hodgson will proceed to sentence Kolko that day, according to court officials.”
Back on May 13 we thought the question of Rabbi (sic) Yosef Kolko’s guilt was settled by his mid-trial guilty plea. If ever there was a schmendrik (inept guy) it is Kolko who pleaded guilty when it was too late to have the charges reduced. He probably did it because he finally realized the jury was extremely likely to vote to convict. Days one and two of the testimony went very well for the prosecutor. The victim and his father convincingly described the crimes and a tape recording of an apparent confession was played to the jury. His attorney, Michael F. Bachner, asked a few questions but did not come up with any significant challenges. The next few days were going to be worse for Kolko in the eyes of both the jury and the orthodox community. Several distinguished rabbis in Lakewood were expected to testify that they too heard Kolko confess to the abusive acts. Their testimony was also going to confirm that a Beit Din (rabbinical court) concluded Kolko was guilty but convinced the father to not immediately report Kolko’s crimes because Kolko agreed to go into therapy and stop working with children. In addition, the therapist, Gavriel Fagin was going to testify that based on his testing and interactions with Kolko he also found the charges against him convincing. Thus, the testimony coming next was going to destroy Kolko’s ability to claim he was falsely convicted by a jury of gentiles. Now it was also going to become clear that key figures inside the Lakewood community believed Kolko was guilty.
Kolko’s situation got even worse because two more victims of Kolko came forward and were willing to testify. It is possible he could not been charged with those crimes because they were out of the statute of limitations or because they occurred in another jurisdiction such as New York. Nevertheless it is a safe bet that the judge was probably going to accept the prosecutor’s motion to allow their testimony to establish his pattern of abuse. Again this would have hurt him both in the eyes of the jury and in the eyes of the orthodox community.
As a result, Kolko agreed to plead guilty to all seven charges (which included oral sex, attempted anal penetration and other offenses). Defense counsel Bachner stipulated that this was on the condition that no additional charges would be brought against Kolko and this condition was accepted by all parties. If the charges by the additional witnesses were not prosecutable this was probably showboating by the lawyer to make the guilty plea look like a good deal. In return for pleading guilty to all of the initial charges, the prosecution agreed to sentencing in the range of 5-15 years instead of the forty years which he could have gotten. Kolko could probably have done better than that by pleading guilty before the trial. He might have gotten the charges reduced and a shorter sentencing range.
Now, his attempt to withdraw his guilty plea will probably cost him a sentence at the high end of the 5-15 year range. Most attempts to withdraw pleas fail, but the attempt shows that Kolko is unable or unwilling to admit that he is guilty. This is a major factor in determining whether someone is likely to reoffend. That is a major factor in sentencing, especially for sex offenders.
Why did Kolko change his plea and what is he likely to claim. The fact that he hired a new attorney, Alan L Zegas, suggests he will claim ineffective counsel. This is common and usually unsuccessful unless the lawyer actually was incompetent. I assume Lakewood’s askanim (activists), led by Mickey Rottenberg, carefully vetted the attorney. Because attorney’s realize that unhappy defendants often turn on them they usually write up their advisories with the boilerplate list of factors the client must consider in accepting a plea (e.g., see this California form for a list of considerations of which the defendant must be advised and acknowledge before a guilty plea is accepted). Whether or not New Jersey has such a form, all these considerations would have been shared with Kolko.
When Kolko submitted his guilty plea, the judge quizzed him on all these points. This is standard judicial protocol to prevent defendants from turning around and trying to retract their guilty please. According to Katie Zezima of the Associated Press (AP) Wire Service when Judge Francis R. Hodgson asked Kolko if he had received any promises or was threatened or coerced in exchange for his plea, Kolko answered softly that there were things that were “not part of the court system.” This led to a lot of speculation at the time that the Lakewood establishment pressured him to plead guilty to avoid having public evidence that leading Lakewood rabbis defied the pressure from Rabbis Malkiel and Aaron Kotler to not support the victim and his father. After all, the Lakewood establishment hounded the family of the victim out of town and got nine rabbis to issue a public statement criticizing the family for bring the case to the civil authorities. This may be true, but it does not constitute the kind of pressure that justifies withdrawing a guilty plea. It is understood that a defendant has to weigh competing considerations and advice. It is assumed that the defendant is an adult and is taking the plea as the best of a lousy set of alternatives.
I strongly suspect that Yosef Kolko is once again taking bad advice from Rabbi Yisroel Belsky. Belsky is the only one likely to benefit from this maneuver. Belsky is all-in on the absurd claim that Kolko is innocent. For reasons I do not understand, Belsky has been defending Kolko molesters for over 40 years going back to when Yosef’s Uncle Yehuda was staff at Camp Agudah in the late 60s. Belsky aggressively defended Yehudah Kolko as blogger UOJ and others raised Kolko’s misconduct as a teacher at Yeshiva Torah Temimah in Brooklyn. Uncle Yehudah eventually was forced out of that position and got a sweetheart plea deal from Brooklyn DA Joe Hynes of no jail time and not being placed on the sex offender registry. Belsky still insists Yehudah Kolko is innocent.
Belsky ordained Yosef Kolko around 2001. When there were rumblings about his behavior in Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, Belsky vouched for him and helped him get jobs working with kids in Lakewood as both a teacher and a camp counselor. Belsky was the single most aggressive rabbi attacking the family of Yosef Kolko’s victim, even accusing the victim’s father of being the one who molested his son. Following the guilty plea, Belsky continued to claim Kolko was innocent.
This has created serious problems for the Orthodox Union (OU) where he is a Senior Posek (Jew Law Authority) for their very important kosher division. When the plea was announced, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) had a hard time issuing a statement jointly with the OU because they had to reconcile their support of the verdict with Belsky’s continued insistence on Kolko’s innocence and they came up with an awkward compromise. As a result pressure is building to dump Belsky as the OU Posek. Rabbi Heshie Billet, former President of the RCA, has publicly called for Belsky’s removal. I suspect Belsky is trying to bolster his case for Kolko’s innocence through this maneuver. It is absurd and will probably cost Kolko an extra decade in jail. But heck, that is not Belsky’s problem. Kolko is a schmendrik for taking advice from Belsky but Yisroel Belsky is a bonafide gangster enabler of sexual abuse and a most untrustworthy advisor.
If You Want to Attend Sentencing
Yosef Kolko is scheduled to be sentence on October 17 (tentatively set for 1:30 p.m.) in the Civil Division of the Superior Court, Courtroom 16/ 120 Hooper Ave/ Toms River, NJ 08753/ (732) 929-4780 (case # 10-06-1181i). Judge Francis Hodgson is presiding. Because court dates can change at the last minute I urge readers to call and confirm the court date before going.
If You Want Background on This Case
Hella Winston has written an in-depth account of how Lakewood’s rabbinical leaders dealt with this case and how the dominant leadership faction tried to cover it up.
Survivors for Justice has a page on the Yosef Kolko case (as distinct from the case of his uncle, Yehuda (Joel) Kolko). The page has links to key documents generated by Kolko’s supporters (including Yisroel Belsky) and to some other news accounts.
Other bloggers addressing this case include Harry Maryles on his blog, Emes Ve-Emunah (The Moral Authority of Lakewood), and Rabbi Daniel Eidensohn on his blog, Daas Torah (Why the Lakewood Establishment is Scared). Daas Torah has a number of other important posts on the Jewish law and Lakewood communal aspects of this case. Rabbi Eidensohn periodically updates his coverage.