TOLEDO – Michael Zacharias, 56, of Findlay, Ohio was sentenced to life in prison today by U.S. District Judge Jack Zouhary and ordered to serve 5 years of supervised release, pay a $500 special assessment and pay $25,000 pursuant to the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act. Zacharias was previously found guilty after a jury trial of five counts of sex trafficking following a two-week trial in May 2023.
Evidence presented at trial showed that Zacharias was a priest-in-training when he first met the three victims at a Catholic school in Toledo in 1999. The evidence showed that he used his position of authority as a spiritual leader to groom the boys and grow close with their families before ultimately coercing the victims into engaging in commercial sex acts, two of which were still minors but all three of which he victimized in their adulthood, by exploiting their opioid addictions to cope with the trauma of the abuse.
“Michael Zacharias’s victims trusted him, as a spiritual advisor, a confidant, a community leader, and someone in a position of authority. He exploited his position and that trust to target and victimize young boys and their families, causing lasting damage to both,” said United States Attorney Rebecca C. Lutzko. “Zacharias was held accountable because of the courageous testimony of these young men, who gave voice to his betrayal and abuse, relieved this unimaginable horror, and withstood Zacharias’s predictable attempts at trial to attack their veracity. I applaud the bravery of these young men, the people who supported them, and the dogged efforts of the assigned FBI agent, who together exposed this predator, masquerading as a man of faith. Although no amount of time can ever wholly repair the damage that Zacharias inflicted on his victims, the life sentence that he received today is a significant step toward finding justice and protecting our community. It sends a message to others who consider similar conduct that the United States Attorney’s Office will aggressively pursue charges against those who target our children.”
“Using a position of trust while deviously preying on one’s vulnerabilities, especially juveniles, is reprehensible,” said FBI Cleveland Special Agent in Charge Greg Nelsen. “The FBI has zero tolerance for sexual predators and those who commit crimes against children. We will continue to find and investigate individuals and their network who exploit and traffic children and seek justice for the victims and their families.”
Evidence presented at trial, including the testimony of the three victims and family members, established that Zacharias first met the victims when they were just 5-, 11-, and 13-year-old students at a parochial school in Toledo in 1999. Zacharias served as a respected Catholic priest in Northwest Ohio for more than 20 years, while secretly exploiting his victims as they struggled in school, fell into opioid addiction, developed criminal histories, and became even more financially dependent on him to avoid opioid withdrawal and homelessness. Zacharias’ betrayal of the victims’ trust caused them serious psychological harm.
Instead of helping the victims or providing referrals for their needs, Zacharias exploited them for his own pleasure. Zacharias preyed on the victims' ongoing fear of the painful physical symptoms of opioid withdrawal they would suffer without money he paid them, which sustained their growing addictions. Financial and phone records showed that when one of the victims was unavailable due to drug rehabilitation or incarceration, Zacharias incessantly solicited the other victims for commercial sex acts, including the youngest brother of his first victim, who was a freshman in high school and already struggling with opioid addiction when Zacharias began abusing him for sex.
The FBI Cleveland Field Office, Lima and Toledo Resident Agencies investigated the case.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tracey Ballard Tangeman for the Northern District of Ohio and Trial Attorney Lindsey Roberson of the Civil Rights Division’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit prosecuted the case.
Anyone who has information about human trafficking should report that information to the National Human Trafficking Hotline toll-free at 1-888-373-7888, which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For more information about human trafficking, please visit www.humantraffickinghotline.org. Information on the Justice Department’s efforts to combat human trafficking can be found at www.justice.gov/humantrafficking.
Thomas P. Weldon