Michael Leon Zeve—a former Irvine youth-sports coach—likes sex with boys, but the 32-year-old who led the FBI on a five-year international manhunt won't see another kid until at least 2023.
Over the emotional objections of relatives of three victims, Orange County Superior Court Judge Richard Toohey accepted an Aug. 31 plea bargain that will send Zeve to a California prison for a term of 18 years to life.
Zeve, who coached at Wayne Gretzky's Roller Hockey Center in Irvine, sat silently in his faded, tattered, yellow-orange jail jump suit with scuffed white sneakers. Two deputies handcuffed the 6-foot-2, 225-pound man's right wrist to a chair. Refusing to look at the relatives of the victims who sat in the courtroom, he buried his chin in his chest for most of the 19-minute hearing.
Zeve's shame was understandable. In the late 1990s, the Woodbridge High School graduate used his volunteer coaching job—coupled with liquor, marijuana and pornography—to repeatedly lure three boys, ages 11 to 13, into sex. Sometimes he filmed his crimes. On occasions when a boy resisted, Zeve made threats or promised to pay him as much as $200 for sex, according to Deputy District Attorney Kal Kaliban.
One of the youngsters eventually confided to his mother. Police arrested Zeve, but days before his 2000 trial, he disappeared. The FBI, Orange County Sheriff's Department and even Court TV's Nancy Grace broadcast news nationwide of the wanted man.
Zeve escaped to Israel, where he lived under an alias, Aaron Michael. The fake identity crumbled after authorities in Tel Aviv arrested him on suspicion of molesting children. Someone there thought to check the FBI's "Most Wanted" posters. A photographic match led Israeli authorities to boot him from their country in 2005 and a pretrial plea deal.
Public Defender Douglas L. Labato said his client declined to apologize at the Aug. 31 session because Zeve didn't want to appear "self-serving." Instead, after the hearing, Labato relayed Zeve's message, not to the victims' relatives, who were standing 15 feet away, but to huddled reporters: "My client wants the victims to know that he apologizes."
Perhaps sensing the hollowness of the assertion, Labato quickly added, "That's why he didn't want them to have to testify."
In the plea bargain, Zeve forfeited a trial and nearly two years' worth of jail credits in exchange for the possibility of parole about 16 years from now.
The punishment wasn't nearly what the victims or their relatives wanted. One, a middle-aged father near tears, begged Toohey to toughen Zeve's sentence to at least 25 years to life.
"What galls me is that he could get out of prison a much younger man than I am now," said the father, whom the Weekly is not identifying because of the nature of the crimes. "My son is not who he used to be. He used to have fun and be outgoing. He's just a withdrawn kid now. He was humiliated by this man."
The father, who was gripping the podium and staring at the back of Zeve's buzz-cut head, looked ready to cry.
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"You ruined my son's life," he continued. "You should rot in prison for the rest of your life."
Next, a brother and mother read statements from the two other victims. Each recounted how Zeve had lured them to secluded places, including a hotel, gotten them intoxicated or high, and then made them perform sex acts. Concluded one of the victims: "You are just a nasty pedophile. You are a sick man. It was all a game to you. But I was 12!"
Kaliban shared the victim's sentiments. "My hope is that a parole board will do its job, and Zeve will spend the rest of his life in prison," he told the Weekly. "I think he's the type of guy who will re-offend if he gets out."