PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A former faculty member at the Naval War College in Newport pleaded not guilty Thursday to federal charges in a child sex and pornography case.
Ronald Zenga, 44, previously of Middletown, appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Lincoln Almond dressed in a tan prison suit to answer to a federal indictment that alleges he took a minor across state lines – and even another country – for sex. He has been in custody since his arrest last October.
Zenga was indicted last month on eight counts including enticement or coercion of a minor to engage in illicit sexual activity, transportation of a minor with intent to engage in sexual activity, as well as distribution and possession of child pornography.
Prosecutors accuse Zenga of taking the victim from Rhode Island to Texas, Florida and Cuba. He was a lieutenant commander in the Navy and a helicopter pilot, according to a U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesperson.
Zenga was charged with three counts of child pornography when he was arrested last October. Last month’s indictment added five additional counts.
A now-bearded Zenga was walked into the courtroom at federal court in Providence in handcuffs, which were removed prior to the hearing.
Almond said he ordered Zenga detained after his initial arrest because the defendant was a flight risk and a “danger to the community based on the nature and severity of the charged offenses.”
His attorney, John MacDonald, did not oppose the continuation of the detention order. He declined to comment after the hearing.
Almond asked Assistant U.S. Attorney John McAdams about the form of communication Zenga allegedly used to trigger the three “enticement” counts. McAdams said Zenga used the internet to show images of child and adult pornography to potential victims as part of a “grooming” process.
The indictment states the offenses took place between the fall of 2016 and October 2018, when Zenga was arrested.
The investigation was conducted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the R.I. State Police and law enforcement in England, where the case was first sparked.
Police say Zenga was communicating with an agent there through a Russian website and he “graphically described ongoing sexual encounters with a young minor child.”
That prompted investigators in the U.S. to serve a search warrant on Zenga’s Middletown home, according to the original criminal complaint.
Court documents show while investigators were combing the house, Zenga described himself to detectives as a “monster,” admitting he was on a social media site “chatting” with another male about the possibility of that person coming to Rhode Island to engage in sex acts with a person whose name is redacted.
In an online catalog for the college from the 2016-17 academic year, Zenga is listed as a faculty member with experience as a naval aviator and “Helicopter Combat Support Operations, Expeditionary Helicopter Operations, MEDEVAC Operations, Aviation and Maritime Logistics.”
Zenga was interviewed in a 2013 U.S. Navy video on the U.S. Department of Defense website where he discussed helicopter training operations in Guam and the Mariana Islands.
Tax records show Zenga purchased a home in Middletown in 2014, and it has since been sold.