TAWAS CITY – Zachary Bert Scholten, 30, Oscoda, has been sentenced to up to 10 years in prison, following his conviction on Monday for aggravated possession of child sexually abusive material (CSAM/child pornography).
According to investigators, thousands of CSAM photos and hundreds of CSAM videos were found on cell phones in his office while he worked as the executive director of the Oscoda-AuSable Chamber of Commerce (OACC).
Scholten appeared before Iosco County’s 23rd Circuit Court Judge David C. Riffel, who – for three counts of CSAM – sentenced Scholten to the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) for 60 months to 10 years, with credit for one day served. He must serve out the 60 months before he is eligible for parole.
Along with various court costs he has to pay, Scholten must also register as required by the Michigan Sex Offenders Registration Act, and comply with all the requirements of same.
Additionally, Scholten was convicted of one felony count of using a computer to commit a crime. For this, he was sentenced to the MDOC for 23 months to 10 years in prison, with credit for one day served. These are to run concurrent.
Scholten was initially arrested and charged last March with 72 felony counts of aggravated possession of CSAM, and one felony count of using a computer to commit a crime. This came after police investigated cell phones which were discovered at his place of employment, containing more than 4,000 images and more than 500 videos which included CSAM.
Since then, Scholten entered into a plea agreement. Iosco County Prosecuting Attorney James Bacarella explained that the plea agreement was to plead guilty to three counts of aggravated possession of child pornography and one count of using a computer to commit a crime. “The reason we do this is if he pleads guilty to three or more charges and we dismiss three or more cases he will score more points on the criminal sentencing guidelines.”
During the sentencing on Monday, Bacarella said with these types of cases, his greatest concern is that in every one of those images, a child was being sexually assaulted. “In this particular case, there were 4,155 images that we found, and 549 videos. That means, 4,700 times a child was sexually assaulted for Mr. Scholten’s deviant conduct.”
To make it even more concerning, said Bacarella, Scholten did this using multiple cell phones, none of which were registered in his name.
“They also found where he was communicating with other people, indicating that he was 13 or 14 years of age,” Bacarella continued, adding that nude images of Scholten were found on the phones, as well.
Bacarella told the court that he is highly concerned about the predatory conduct which was involved in this. “It is chilling to me that we have thousands of children who are getting raped for Mr. Scholten to view these images. And thousands of victims whose lives and childhoods were ruined [by] Mr. Scholten.”
Bacarella added that he believes the sentencing guidelines are fair, and he asked that the court follow these.
Scholten was represented by Attorney Peter Samouris, who advised the judge that his client had family present that day to support him in court.
Letters of support from others, for Scholten, were also acknowledged and Samouris said Scholten began taking steps to improve his life and gain control of his life, long before he was officially charged. “And I think, to a large degree, that’s corroborated in the letters that have been sent to the court.”
The most candid letter, according to Samouris, was from Scholten’s now ex-wife, who stated that she has seen the changes in him and that the two are better partners now, in the short time that they’ve been divorced, than they were in the last year of their marriage.
Samouris recognized that the nature of this charge is horrific. He told Riffel that the only thing he can say is, in all the similar cases he’s dealt with, what happens is that there is a compulsion which is triggered by something else, and usually it’s drugs.
“And in this case, my client did definitely have an Adderall and alcohol problem, to say the least,” he shared.
“In this particular case, I don’t think before the court is a person who is a quote unquote child porn addict,” Samouris went on.
He said he thinks Scholten is a person who has a drug and alcohol problem. “And part of that, unfortunately, resulted in a pornography problem.”
The attorney said that, the way this entire matter came about, was not because somebody suspected something and got a search warrant. “My client left his phone somewhere, in a public place.” So, he wondered if this was a cry for help on Scholten’s part. “I’m not sitting here saying that Mr. Scholten wanted to somehow be caught and get in the legal system, but he definitely wanted his behavior to end. And I think he wanted to tell somebody without, perhaps, formally telling somebody.”
Samouris pointed out Scholten’s lack of a criminal history to the judge, and said that he has changed his ways and has taken sincere steps to improve his life.
He also remarked that he doesn’t think all people who are sex offenders can be lumped in the same boat. “What facilitated it? Are they actively seeking children? There is no indication that there’s ever been any inappropriate behavior by my client with any children.”
The attorney noted that Scholten has children of his own, as well. “I know he’s got two children and he’s a better father now, ironically, than he was when he was married.”
He added that Scholten’s ex-wife is doing everything she can to facilitate supervised visitation at this point, which he thinks speaks well of his client.
While Scholten’s former wife was not present in the courtroom, Samouris said that in his conversations with her, she has indicated that she feels anything more than two years would be excessive.
According to the attorney, the woman’s children are her number one priority.
“And there’s no involvement right now, for example, with CPS,” he continued, noting that he thinks this speaks well of his client, as well as Scholten’s ex and how she’s handling this matter. She’s not in denial, she is taking this seriously and so is Scholten.
Samouris said that actions speak louder than words, and he reiterated that his client started getting sober and cleaning up his life long before the two met.
For his part, “I would just like to say that I know what I did and I know it was wrong, and that there deserves to be punishment,” Scholten said, when addressing the judge. But, he told Riffel that he is not the same man he was when these things happened.
Scholten advised that he has gone through a Christian program, which really changed his life. “It allowed me to forgive myself, and I ask for forgiveness from the people that I harmed.
“And not only that, getting off of drugs was the number one thing that changed me. Being on Adderall, I had these compulsions; and I no longer have them,” Scholten continued. “I truly feel horrible about what I’ve done.”
When it was time for Riffel to hand down his ruling, he said Bacarella had pointed out things which he, too, planned on noting.
As the report indicates, there were discovered to be 4,155 images portraying children posing nude and acting out sexual intercourse, he said.
Riffel also mentioned Scholten having lied during conversations, about being 13-14 years old, when he was either trying to get this material or otherwise be involved in these behaviors.
The judge stressed that each photograph and each video involving CSAM represents a separate victim. “So this is a case where, at least what was discovered from Mr. Scholten, we had thousands of victims.”
Riffel said he was not going to go into what could possibly be happening to each of these victims, where they are now, how they got to be where they were being used in these videos or pictures and so on. “It’s horrific. It’s beyond what most people can process.”
Riffel said they cannot forget that this case involved Scholten being charged with 72 counts. As for the suggestion that this case be considered on the lower end of the sentencing guidelines, or that anything less than two years with MDOC would not be appropriate, “I have a hard time swallowing that. It’s one of the worst cases I’ve had come before the bench.”
While Riffel said Scholten has shown remorse for his actions, he disagrees that more than two years in MDOC is unnecessary.
He then noted that this isn’t a case where Scholten just stumbled upon the materials. “He was actively seeking it.”
Riffel remarked that if people such as Scholten aren’t seeking out these materials, perhaps there would be less of this activity. He added that he is sure it’s still going to be there, whether people are searching for it or not, but maybe not to the extent that it is. Therefore, not contributing to it does help in some way.
He repeated that each of the photos represents a victim. “So, again, before the court stands someone who has victimized thousands of children. And I can’t justify anything other than what is recommended. In fact, your attorney worked out a pretty good plea agreement for you.”
Riffel also expressed that he is glad he and others were spared from having to view that material. “Because if I had to view it, I don’t know what I would be saying right now.”
As reported, Scholten briefly worked as executive director of the OACC.
Bacarella – who at that time was the county’s chief assistant prosecutor – authorized a felony complaint against Scholten on March 5, 2020, for the 73 counts.
Scholten was lodged in the Iosco County jail, where his bond was set at $750,000.
An investigation by the Oscoda Township Police Department (OTPD) began when authorities were notified that a cell phone containing child pornography was discovered by an OACC employee. Police obtained search warrants for the phone, which produced the images and videos, many of which included CSAM.
As noted in court records, OTPD officers were dispatched to the OACC building – located on US-23 in AuSable Township – on the evening of Dec. 28, 2019, for a possible possession of CSAM complaint.
Authorities met with several chamber representatives, who had gathered at the building to assess a financial situation regarding the OACC.
In an effort to locate some documents, the representatives said they looked through the building, specifically near the front service counter and the area associated with the work space of Scholten. It was during the search when one of the individuals located a cloth bag containing eight cellular phones.
Acting under the assumption that the cellphones may have been stolen or turned in to the chamber as lost, they attempted to access the phones, in order to identify and locate the rightful owners of each device.
According to court documents, they accessed just one of the cellphones in question, and noted videos and pictures of what they perceived to be CSAM. The individuals also told police that they observed photographs of a nude male subject on the phone, who they recognized to be Scholten.
The device was subsequently sent to the Michigan State Police Computer Crimes Unit Forensic Laboratory, where the contents of the phone were analyzed. Authorities stated that the vast majority of the images portrayed children posing nude, posing for cameras and acting out sexual intercourse.
Nude photos of Scholten – who was reported to have accessed internet chat sites on the phone to communicate with unidentified users for the purpose of conversation and to exchange images – were also found on the device.
Police stated that the provided documentation recorded more than 70 social media chats between the cellphone user and other social media users. In several of these chats, the individuals communicating with Scholten told him that they were 13-14 years old.