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Former Middletown man and naval officer admits guilt in child sex case

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A former Newport naval officer admitted he sexually abused a minor victim known to him for years.

During a remote change of plea hearing before a Rhode Island federal judge, Ronald Zenga, 45, formerly of Middletown, pleaded guilty to four counts including one count of enticement of a minor with intent to engage in sexual activity, and three charges related to possessing and distributing child pornography.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John McAdams outlined the case against Zenga to U.S. District Judge John McConnell, often in graphic detail. Zenga was ensnared in an international investigation when he thought he was chatting with someone else using a Russian internet platform, but the person on the other end turned out to be an undercover investigator. 

The Department of Homeland Security tracked the IP address from Zenga’s computer to his home in Middletown, where investigators executed a search warrant in September 2018, and interviewed the victim. McAdams said the victim told them the abuse was happening “since her first memories.”

“She had specific memories at age three when the family lived in Navy housing in Japan,” McAdams said. “She states the sexual abuse had been continuous up until the date of arrest. She stated it ‘happened pretty much whenever he knew my mom was going to be out of the house for a while.’”

“She knew it was wrong but was afraid to tell anyone because the defendant told her not to and because she was conflicted,” he added.

Zenga – who appeared remotely from a federal detention center where he has been held since his arrest – appeared tearful as McAdams relayed the facts of the case.

McConnell will ultimately decide Zenga’s fate at sentencing on Feb. 2, but the defendant is guaranteed to face substantial prison time. The enticement of a minor charge comes with a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison. But McConnell explained to Zenga the discretion ultimately lies with the court, which could impose a sentence of life in prison with a $1 million fine.

Zenga was a faculty member at the Naval War College. In an online catalog for the college from the 2016-17 academic year, Zenga was described as an experienced naval aviator who taught “Helicopter Combat Support Operations, Expeditionary Helicopter Operations, MEDEVAC Operations, Aviation and Maritime Logistics.”

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

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