A former New Jersey yeshiva teacher who claimed he was pressured by his Orthodox Jewish community into admitting to sexually assaulting a boy was sentenced Thursday night to nearly 13 years in prison after a judge refused to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea.
Yosef Kolko, 39, had said in court papers that members of the Lakewood community carried out an unrelenting campaign to get him to plead guilty and to spare the community negative publicity. He claims they showed him YouTube videos "of how inmates kill people in jail for being molesters in order to pressure me into taking a plea and avoiding trial."
"If not for the extreme pressure by members of my community, I would not have pled guilty as charged," he said. "I reject plea bargains offered by the state because I am innocent of the crimes alleged."
But Superior Court Judge Francis Hodgson Jr. said Kolko "set out before he even pleaded guilty to game the system," seeing an opportunity "to get a do-over" of a trial that was not going well for him."
The judge said it was clear that Kolko never dreamed the victim and his father would testify against him.
Prosecutors said the family of the boy, who was 12 at the time of the abuse, was ostracized by the community for pursuing the case in state court instead of letting religious leaders deal with it. The boy's father, a prominent rabbi, lost his job and the family moved to Michigan.
Kolko claims that after three days of testimony in the case in May, five members of the Jewish community came to his house at 2 a.m., pressuring him for hours to plead guilty.
"I arrived at court exhausted from the events earlier that morning and told my brother, Shabsi Kolko, that I was pleading guilty against my will," he said in court papers.
Shabsi Kolko testified Thursday that his brother Yosef signed a piece of paper moments before pleading guilty that read, "All that I plead to is under duress, and to save my life."
But the prosecutor ridiculed the fact that Kolko's family apparently held on to the letter for months instead of bringing it immediately into court to try to prevent his plea from being accepted.
Kolko pleaded guilty while he was on trial on several counts including aggravated sexual assault. The accusations involved a boy Kolko met at a camp. The alleged abuse took place between August 2008 and February 2009.
The judge sentenced Kolko to 12 years and nine months in prison after a hearing that included testimony from the victim, now 16.
When he pleaded guilty, Kolko admitted performing oral sex on the boy and attempting to have anal intercourse with him.
In court, the boy addressed Kolko directly: "How can you ignore the tears and open wounds when you knew how much you hurt me?"
Kolko, who had repeatedly called out during the nearly 10-hour court session when he disagreed with something that was said, declined to speak on his own behalf before being sentenced.
The victim's father had initially wanted the case handled within the Orthodox community, asking a senior rabbi to help ensure that Kolko stay away from children and go to therapy. In mid-2009, the father decided to take the case to authorities.
On the witness stand, the father said he went to prosecutors because he felt the case was not being handled appropriately. Kolko was still teaching and planning to work at the summer camp where he met the boy.