By GREG RUSSELL, Register Staff Writer
Cooke County’s most recently elected criminal prosecutor educated Friday’s American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) lunch group about the duties of his title and victimization issues relevant to senior citizens.
Ed Zielinski, county attorney since Jan. 1, served the county’s district attorney’s office as criminal trial counsel between 1999 and 2001. He entered private practice in 2004, and operated out of an office on California Street in Gainesville — a service included in 30 years of local criminal defense, family law specialty and civil litigation case work.
Today, he operates from an office in the Cooke County Courthouse that steers in conjunction with the third-floor district attorney’s office.
“I work for you,” he told the AARP crowd at Stanford House in Gainesville. “We do what we can to provide all the services our offices are capable of providing.”
Clearing the confusion
The crucial difference between a county attorney’s job and a district attorney’s job, Zielinski explained Friday, involves the severity of cases tried. Zielinski, like former county attorney Tanya Davis, specializes in prosecuting family violence defendants, juvenile offenders and offenders in misdemeanor cases such as drug possession and impaired driving. He explained Friday that any of those cases can and do enter the more dire realm of local felony offenses, and when they do, the county’s district attorney’s office handles them.
Among them, he said, impaired driving is one of the major constants — and he cited the statistics that an average of 70,000 vehicles travel through Cooke County on Interstate 35 each day while 40,000 vehicles travel through it on Highway 82.
This presents a high probability of many intoxicated drivers using local roads, many of whom are arrested and join the caseload of his office.
And that office, Zielinski added, is poised to file more than 1,000 cases in a year, but he can only feasibly try two per week.
“I’ve got to figure out which ones I really want to try and which ones I don’t,” he said. “I will not present that case for trial unless I’ve got all the elements of that offense that I can prove the day that file is on my desk.”
Zielinski also officially represents the county in an advisory capacity, he said, and is present at county commissioner meetings.
“When a county official has a question about a legal matter, I’m the person they go to,” he said Friday. “If there’s a problem about how we determine where a road ought to be located or a question about the interpretation of a statute as it applies to the county, that’s my responsibility.”
Issues affecting the elderly
Zielinski said theft and abuse are the two most prevalent factors negatively impacting senior citizens in Cooke County. Senior citizens, he explained, are more often likely to use paper and postal mail for tax return and financial transactions rather than the internet, which can leave them open to being scammed or robbed.
“Theft has become a very virulent problem for all ages, but particularly for folks who have kind of operated within a particular skillset in a certain way,” he said Friday. “When you write a check in today’s society, you’re giving an awful lot of information to someone you don’t know. You’re handing them a piece of paper that has an account number on it and a routing number on it, and, oftentimes, people will have their license information on the check and phone number stamped on the check and their address.
“Sadly, thieves, being what they are, are inclined to take whatever you leave available to them to take.”
Abuse of the elderly is the more nefarious factor. Zielinski said Friday that in years past, his family violence cases were most often straightforward scenarios of spouses against spouses.
That is still common, he said — but equally common today are cases of youth abusing grandparents in the course of stealing their money or prescription drugs.
Compounding those cases is the hesitation among those senior citizens to see their grandchildren prosecuted or jailed, despite their guilt.
“It’s very difficult for those victims,” Zielinski said. “We have to subpoena them sometimes; we have to be in a position where we have to force them to testify where they don’t want to testify. But the level of violence in the home is increasing.”
The county attorney said he attributed that increase to a rise in the level of drug abuse, now made more prevalent than ever through medicine-cabinet theft of prescription opioids such as hydrocodone. Young offenders commonly steal those drugs, and in addition to using them, they enhance the stolen capsules with other drugs and sell them to other young users.
“It causes an awful lot of issues for people who are not readily in control of their emotions anyway,” Zielinski said. “You add the catalyst of drug activity and alcohol activity, and the violence crescendos.”
A chance of success
Zielinski said the chief consideration in curbing adult felonies is to consider that many of those offenders have a criminal history that began when they were underage.
“Once they’re between 25 and 30 years old, if they’re going to be a problem to society, they’re going to have a record that reflects it,” he said.
Most misdemeanor and juvenile assault and drug cases that enter his office, he added, involve perpetrators who are currently operating in “the minor leagues” of crime.
And some can be helped at an early age through rehabilitation and correctional programs, rather than jail, and Zielinski’s office frequently works to make this possible.
“If we can change their culture at that minor-league level, then I prevent them from becoming felony perpetrators,” he said. “But if I can’t change that culture I will see them again and again, and felony prosecutors will see them even more often.”