By Kathleen Hopkins (Asbury Park Press)
January 7, 2016
TOMS RIVER - A former Orthodox Jewish camp counselor from Lakewood will remain in state prison after judges rejected his claims that he was coerced by his religious community to falsely admit he molested a youngster in his charge.
A two-judge panel on Wednesday refused to allow Yosef Kolko to take back his guilty plea to multiple sexual assault charges in a high-profile case that exposed how Lakewood’s Orthodox Jewish community handled molestation allegations.
Judges Harry G. Carroll and Thomas W. Sumners of the Appellate Division of Superior Court deemed meritless Kolko’s claims that he was coerced to plead guilty to aggravated sexual assault, attempted aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child who had attended a Yeshiva summer camp where he once worked as a counselor.
As a result, Kolko, 39, of Lakewood will continue to serve a 15-year term in state prison, imposed in 2013 by Superior Court Judge Francis R. Hodgson.
Kolko was on trial before Hodgson in May 2013 when, in the midst of the proceeding, he pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a boy who had attended Yachad, a summer camp run by the Yeshiva Bais Hatorah School on Swarthmore Avenue in Lakewood, where Kolko had worked as a counselor.
Kolko also was a teacher at Yeshiva Orchos Chaim School in Lakewood.
Before Kolko pleaded guilty to the charges, the victim had already testified that he was molested by Kolko, his former camp counselor, in 2009 and 2009, when he was 11 and 12 years old.
Sudden guilty plea
When the trial was set to resume on a Monday, the prosecutor, Laura Pierro, now chief trial attorney in the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, told the judge that Kolko instead had decided to plead guilty after learning that two more alleged victims had come forward late in the day the previous Friday and accused Kolko of molestation.
The case highlighted how some in the Orthodox community turned against the victim and his family in an effort to get them to have religious authorities handle the allegations rather than the police. In fact, one man was charged with witness tampering for allegedly embarking on a telephone campaign to get the family to drop the charges. The family was ostracized for going forward with the prosecution and later moved out of state, Pierro has said.
Before he was sentenced in October 2013, Kolko’s attorneys made an unsuccessful bid to have his guilty plea withdrawn, claiming Kolko was coerced into making the admissions by members of the Orthodox community who didn’t want the bad publicity the trial would bring. The attorneys said the pressure included a 2 a.m. visit by five people to Kolko’s home on the day his trial was to resume and being called to the home of a rabbi where he was shown a YouTube video of how child molesters are treated in prison.
At a hearing on those claims before Hodgson, Kolko’s brother testified that Kolko had given him a note that morning saying he was being pressured into pleading guilty.
But at the same hearing, Kolko’s trial attorney testified it was the revelations that two more accusers had come forward that led to the guilty plea.
Coercion claims rejected
Hodgson rejected the claims of coercion and said those who tried to convince Kolko to plead guilty were “nothing more than friends who cared about a fellow friend seeking to persuade him, in the most comforting terms that they could, to do what was best for him." Hodgson also said that Kolko was upset “the trial was not going well for him," and that he wrote the note to his brother in an attempt to get a chance for a new trial.
The appellate judges agreed with Hodgson and added that Kolko, in his arguments, never claimed innocence but instead focused on the alleged pressure brought to bear on him.
The state Corrections Department website said Kolko will not be considered for release on parole until 2026. He is serving his term at South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton.