WI v. William Zelenski: Stolen Reptile Murder Trial

Posted at 6:38 PM, July 28, 2023 and last updated 6:39 PM, July 28, 2023


WAUPACA, Wis. (Court TV) – A Wisconsin man convicted of killing his girlfriend’s son was sentenced to life in prison on Friday when he faced a judge.

After a sentencing hearing on July 28, Judge Raymond Huber ordered William Zelenski to spend the rest of his life in prison, but that he will be eligible to apply for extended supervision after 35 years. The judge noted no credit would be given for the 1,013 days Zelenski already served.

On June 23, a jury deliberated for several hours before finding Zelenski guilty of first-degree intentional homicide in the death of Ryelee Manente-Powell.

William Zelenski testifies in court

William Zelenski testifies in court during his trial. (Court TV)

Zelenski, who is married, killed Manente-Powell in a confrontation after accusing the victim of stealing thousands of dollars in animals.

In a criminal complaint obtained by Court TV, Waupaca police said they received multiple 911 calls on October 19, 2020, from Zelenski, who reported that there had been a burglary at his home a week prior. Zelenski told police that two handguns, alcohol and several reptiles were stolen from him, among them:

  • Lizard valued at $17,000
  • Crocodile valued at $2,000
  • Red tail boa constrictor valued at $575
  • Baby Burmese python valued at $7,000.

Officers noted that Zelenski said some of the reptiles were poisonous. Zelenski also told the 911 operator that he had received a “tip” identifying two suspects in the case, one of whom was Ryelee.

Less than four hours after Zelenski’s first call to the police, officers said he called 911 again and told the operator that he had confronted Ryelee, and Ryelee “had attacked him and he had shot (Ryelee).”

EXCLUSIVE: Stolen Reptile Murder Trial: Victim described as ‘loving and mischievous’

Also present at the scene was Ryelee’s mother, identified as Tiffany Powell, who was also dating Zelenski. Detectives said that after canvassing the neighborhood, they obtained video from a doorbell security system that showed the confrontation.

At one point during the altercation, Zelenski appears to be holding a long gun and then handing the long gun to Tiffany Powell. Zelenski was allegedly heard on the video telling Tiffany Powell to hold the gun on her son. The video then appears to show Tiffany Powell holding the gun and pointing it at (Ryelee). The long gun was determined to be a double barrelled 12 gauge shotgun with two slugs in the chamber. At one point, Powell appears to give the gun back to Zelenski and (Ryelee) was heard yelling at Zelenski to put the gun down and fight like a man.

Tifffany Powell booking photo

Tiffany Powell is serving a 15-year sentence after pleading to multiple charges. (Wisconsin Department of Corrections)

Officers noted in recounting the video of the altercation that the alleged victim was unarmed. Detectives interviewed a witness who reported knowing both Ryelee and his mother. The witness told officers that when they saw Ryelee on the ground she screamed for Powell and Zelenski to help him, but “they did nothing but look at him lying there bleeding.”

Tiffany Powell pleaded no contest to recklessly endangering safety and guilty to possession of a firearm by a felon on February 6, 2023. She was sentenced to serve 15 years, to be followed by 8 years of supervised release, according to court records reviewed by Court TV.



DAY 5 – 6/23/23

DAY 4 – 6/22/23

  • William Zelenski returned to the witness stand, and testified that he used de-escalation tactics including remaining calm and trying to keep distance between himself and Ryelee.
  • Zelenski testified that he signed a separation agreement with the Waupaca Police Department.
  • The jury will consider first- and second-degree intentional homicide as possible convictions. The maximum sentence for first-degree homicide is life in prison, the maximum sentence for second-degree homicide is 60 years.
  • WATCH: Stolen Reptile Murder Trial: Day 4

DAY 3 – 6/21/23

DAY 2 – 6/20/23

  • Dr. Adam Covach, who performed Ryelee’s autopsy, said Ryelee’s cause of death was a shotgun wound to the chest. In his medical opinion, this shotgun was pushed up against Ryelee’s skin.
  • Officer Paul Przybelski, who responded to the scene, remembered Bill saying he shot Ryelee in self-defense.
  • Capt. Paul Benzschawel, who performed an extraction of Bill’s phone, read his text messages into the record. Some say he was hunting down the person who stole his reptiles, others say he was merely looking to get his animals back so no one got hurt and the animals didn’t get sick.
  • Bodycam video of Bill was played in court where he is seen clutching his face, pacing, face turned red. The defense is saying Bill is reacting to the notification that Ryelee passed away. The state is saying Bill is reacting to the realization that since Ryelee passed away, he would be charged with homicide. In court, Bill began crying at the sight of this video.

DAY 1 – 6/19/23