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Judge Allows Sex Case Against Ex-Paradise Vice Mayor To Proceed

Action News Now

A Butte County judge has found there is sufficient evidence to charge a former Paradise Town Council member with sex crimes.

The former councilman, Mike Zuccolillo, is accused of sending sexually explicit photographs of himself to an undercover officer posing as a 16-year-old girl.

Superior Court Judge Michael Candela’s ruling Tuesday allows the year-old case against Zuccolillo to proceed toward trial.

Zuccolillo, 42, is next due in court April 29, when he’s expected to re-enter pleas to charges of contacting a minor for the purpose of engaging in sexual conduct; sending harmful material to a minor; and arranging a meeting with a minor for lewd or lascivious purposes.

He previously pleaded not guilty to the charges during initial arraignment proceedings last year.

The Butte County District Attorney’s Office says the case began in February 2020. A man approached law enforcement with saying he had evidence allegedly showing then-Vice Mayor Zuccolillo had been sending sexually explicit texts and photographs to a person Zuccolillo believed to be a 16-year-old girl.

The person, named in court Tuesday as Earl Achilles Halgren, targeted Zuccolillo in what the Butte County Sheriff’s Office has described as a “To Catch a Predator” style operation.

The Sheriff’s Office said previously Halgren had a business relationship with Zuccolillo – a realtor – and held animosity toward the former councilman over a “bad business deal.”

Deputies scrutinized Halgren’s allegations and then conducted their own investigation, prosecutors say. An undercover officer, posing as a fictitious 16-year-old previously established by Halgren, exchanged text messages with Zuccolillo.

During the exchanges, prosecutors allege Zuccolillo sent additional sexually explicit texts and photographs of his genitals to the officer.

Zuccolillo appeared Tuesday in Butte County Superior Court for a preliminary hearing, during which a judge decides whether there is enough evidence to send a defendant to trial.

Will Brewton, a deputy sheriff in Butte County, read aloud text messages allegedly exchanged between Zuccolillo and Halgren. Brewton walked through the exchanges while under questioning by supervising deputy district attorney Jennifer Bennett.

Brewton said Halgren posed as multiple people, including a 16-year-old girl named “Kai” and a woman purported to be Kai’s older sister. Brewton noted the communications established that Kai was visiting the U.S. for a short time before returning to China.

The exchanges over text included talk of Kai procuring a fake ID, with Zuccolillo allegedly suggesting it would give him cover should anyone ask about their relationship.

Zuccolillo’s attorney, David Dratman, questioned in court whether the evidence presented proved the former councilman believed he was talking to an actual minor. Dratman suggested the communications may have involved role-play.

The defense attorney said a photograph sent to Zuccolillo purporting to be Kai, the 16-year-old, was actually a Vietnamese actress in her 30s. That fact, Dratman noted, could easily be found by conducting a reverse image search through Google.

Dratman further suggested the story told to Zuccolillo about how the fictitious 16-year-old Kai entered the U.S. – by posing as her 32-year-old sister “Mai” – is too absurd to be believed.

“There was no minor,” the attorney said.

The District Attorney’s Office filed charges against Zuccolillo last April, when he was a member of the Town Council. The council later stripped Zuccolillo of the title of vice mayor, and he lost his bid for re-election in November.

Prosecutors say he remains out of custody pursuant to his bail bond.

A trial date has not yet been set.