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Former Newport naval officer agrees to plead guilty in child porn and enticement case

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Courtesy: U.S. Navy / Dept. of Defense

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A former faculty member at the Naval War College in Newport has agreed to plead guilty to four charges in a federal child sex and pornography case.

Ronald Zenga, 45, previously of Middletown, reached a deal with the Rhode Island U.S. Attorney’s Office that would guarantee he will serve time in a federal prison because of the nature of the crimes.

According to the plea agreement filed Wednesday at U.S. District Court in Providence, Zenga has pledged to plead guilty to one count of enticement of a minor with intent to engage in sexual activity, and three charges related to possessing and distributing child pornography.

In exchange, prosecutors said they would drop four counts, including a charge of transportation of a minor with intent to engage in illicit sexual activity.

The plea agreement means Zenga will face at least 10 years in prison because of the mandatory minimum sentence that comes with the enticement charge. He faces a maximum sentence of life behind bars.

Zenga was indicted last year, accused 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.

U.S. Magistrate Lincoln Almond ordered Zenga detained when he was arraigned because the defendant was a flight risk and a “danger to the community based on the nature and severity of the charged offenses.”

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 first emerged.

U.S. District Chief Judge John McConnell will have to sign off on the plea agreement before Zenga is sentenced. No hearing has been scheduled yet.

British police said 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 through 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.

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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