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10/07/2006

Man gets 45-day sentence

He pleads guilty to trying to cover up accident

vskinner@record-eagle.com

TRAVERSE CITY — A Kalkaska man will spend 45 days in jail for his involvement in a fatal hit-and-run accident, while his wife, the driver of the vehicle, pleaded to a lesser charge.

Joseph James Zolen, 71, pleaded guilty to attempted accessory after the fact for attempting to cover up the early morning incident on May 23.

"All my life I was responsible ... I cannot even understand why I did what I did," Zolan said before sentencing. "I am sincerely sorry that I did such a terrible thing."

Defense attorney Paul Jarboe said Zolen had no previous criminal history.

Zolen encouraged his wife, Marilyn Maxine Zolen, 74, to flee the scene after she struck and killed Joel Anthony Niedjelski with their Nissan Pathfinder shortly before 1:30 a.m.

Niedjelski, 48, was intoxicated and staggering in Munson Avenue when he was hit and immediately killed.

Kelli O'Brien, Niedjelski's niece, spoke on behalf of the family at the sentencing.

"Our family does not feel there is any remorse at all because you tried to destroy the evidence," O'Brien said between tears. "Younger people should be learning from you. All this has created a big, ugly, heartbreaking mess for our family."

Had the couple stopped and reported the accident they likely would not have faced any charges, said 13th Circuit Court Judge Thomas G. Power.

Marilyn Maxine Zolen pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of failure to stop at a personal injury accident in a plea bargain. She is scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 16.

She was convicted of the lesser charge because she was influenced by her husband to cover up the accident, said Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Alan Schneider.

Tipsters led authorities to the concealed vehicle stored on property near Long Lake in Kalkaska County.

Zolen removed the hood and windshield of the sport utility vehicle and attempted to burn the windshield.

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