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Bill Zelenski sentenced to life in prison for Waupaca murder over stolen reptiles

William Zelenski sits between his attorneys during a sentencing hearing on July 28, 2023.

William Zelenski was sentenced today to life in prison for murdering his girlfriend’s son, 18-year-old Ryelee Manente-Powell, over stolen reptiles. He’ll be eligible for parole in 35 years.

Zelenski, 47, who goes by Bill, owned Wild Bill’s Exotics in Waupaca, Wisconsin, where he bought, sold and traded exotic animals across the country. He is married to Portage County Clerk of Courts April Zelenski and was in a relationship with Tiffany Powell, 37. He was also acquainted with Powell’s son, Manente-Powell.

On Oct. 19, 2020, Zelenski called 911 multiple times to report a burglary that occurred at his home the previous week, according to the criminal complaint. He reported handguns, alcohol and several reptiles stolen, including a venomous rhino viper and a beaded lizard valued at $17,000.

Zelenski told police he received a tip that Powell’s 18-year-old son and his 17-year-old friend were involved in the thefts. He and Powell received a phone call notifying them of the location of the animals and began driving to the Weyauwega home where they were located to retrieve them.

While driving, Zelenski and Powell located Manente-Powell walking down Van Street in Waupaca. They pulled the car over and confronted him with a gun.

A doorbell camera captured parts of the altercation and in the video Zelenski is seen handing a long gun to Powell and ordering her to point the gun at her son. At one point Powell gave the gun back to Zelenski.

Manente-Powell challenged Zelenski to a fight and told him to “put the gun down and fight like a man.”

A witness heard a gunshot a little after 10 p.m. and looked out the window to see Powell and Zelenski sitting in a car very calmly with a “lump” behind the car. The witness ran outside and saw it was Powell’s son, who she knew very well, and began screaming at Zelenski and Powell to help him, but they didn't render any aid to Manente-Powell.

“They did nothing but look at him lying there bleeding,” the criminal complaint alleges.

Zelenski called 911 and reported he was attacked and he shot Manente-Powell. He was arrested at the scene and Powell was arrested a few days later.

Manente-Powell, who was the father to a young son, was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.

Police searched the vehicle Zelenski and Powell were driving and recovered the shotgun used to kill Manente-Powell, a long gun, 112 rounds of various unspent ammunition, six knives, two pairs of handcuffs, a hammer, a baseball bat and a pick ax. An ammunition belt with 14 unspent shotgun shells was on the rear passenger seat in plain view.

The stolen reptiles were returned to Zelenski’s wife the next day. They were later sold, with the proceeds used to fund Zelenski’s criminal defense attorney.

In February, Powell was sentenced to 15 years in prison and eight years of extended supervision for her role in the shooting death of her son, with about two years of credit for time served.

Zelenski pleaded not guilty to the homicide and a week-long jury trial was held in June. Zelenski testified during the trial that all he cared about was getting his animals back, although the judge noted instead of retrieving the animals, he drove to a location familiar to Manente-Powell and instigated an altercation with the teen.

Zelenski indicated on the stand that shooting Manente-Powell was an accident and it was in self defense, claiming he tried to grab the gun from Zelenski. An expert witness testified the entry wound appeared to be from a rifle pressed directly to Manente-Powell’s skin, and not from a weapon being fired during a struggle.

The jury rejected Zelenski’s argument, deliberating for about an hour before finding him guilty of first degree reckless homicide. Zelenski’s sentencing hearing was today, with the date moved up due to health issues he’s experienced in jail caused by kidney failure, according to Prosecutor Veronica Isherwood.

Isherwood described Zelenski as a manipulative womanizer who was addicted to drugs.

“The evidence was that Bill was using methamphetamine, Bill was selling methamphetamine,” she said. “Bill and Tiffany were using Ryelee to sell methamphetamine for him.”

Isherwood said that while in the Waupaca County Jail, Zelenski was charged with three incidents of misconduct, with the most recent just 10 days before the sentencing hearing.

She also brought up past incidents where Zelenski is accused of being abusive to his wife and to others in the community, including a restraining order that a judge placed on Zelenski due to his abusive treatment of a former employee.

That woman said Zelenski abused her, put drugs in her food, intentionally killed animals to intimidate her, sexually harassed her and admitted in a recording that during an incident when he shot at a target inches from her, he was actually intending to shoot her but changed his mind at the last minute.

Isherwood said Zelenski was able to exert control over others because he portrayed to them that he was formerly a Waupaca Police Officer so he had a special relationship with police and could get away with anything.

Isherwood said Zelenski entered into a voluntary separation agreement with police for a number of incidents including insubordination, having an emotional reaction to mandatory overtime, unprofessional conduct during a traffic stop and failure to file paperwork in a timely manner, causing a delay in filing a case.

The most serious misconduct during Zelenski’s employment as a police officer was an incident where he was off duty and discharged his firearm during a verbal altercation with a neighbor who complained that bullets were entering his property while Zelenski was shooting.

Isherwood said one witness was prepared to testify that she witnessed Zelenski chasing Manente-Powell with a taser, while Manente-Powell was carrying his 2-year-old child. She said he was a loan shark who threatened to cut off people’s fingers if he believed they were failing to repay him.

Manente-Powell’s grandmother, Melissa Manente, joined a number of friends and relatives to give a heartbreaking statement to the judge on how his death has changed their lives. She asked those at the sentencing hearing to sit in silence for 15 seconds, the length of time it took for Manente-Powell to die after he was shot.

During the sentencing hearing that lasted nearly three hours, Judge Raymond Huber noted the first degree intentional homicide charge carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison, with his ruling only in relation to if and when Zelenski will be eligible to apply for parole.

Huber ruled Zelenski will be eligible to apply for parole when he’s 82 years old.


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