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Former Newport naval officer given life in prison in child sex case

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A former Newport naval officer has been sentenced to serve life in prison for sexually abusing an underage victim known to him for years.

U.S. District Judge John McConnell ordered Ronald Zenga, formerly of Middletown, to serve the rest of his natural life in federal prison during a sentencing hearing in Rhode Island U.S. District Court on Friday.

“I can confidently say that a life sentence is appropriate,” McConnell said. “The crime you committed requires the utmost punishment.”

Zenga last year pleaded guilty to four criminal counts including enticement of a minor with intent to engage in sexual activity and three charges related to possessing and distributing child pornography.

The charges stemmed from 2018 when the former Naval War College faculty member was caught up in an international investigation into child pornography. At the time, Zenga was caught chatting with an undercover investigator posing as someone from Russia through an online platform.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security subsequently tracked the IP address from Zenga’s computer to his home in Middletown, where federal investigators raided his home and interviewed the victim. Federal prosecutors last year said the victim told investigators that the abuse had been going on “since her first memories.”

Zenga originally pleaded not guilty to the charges in 2019 but changed his plea to guilty last year as part of a plea agreement. The federal indictment against him showed he transported the underage victim across state lines and even into another country for sex.

In a statement written by the victim and read by Assistant U.S. Attorney John McAdams, the victim explained the emotional, developmental and long-term damage Zenga had caused through his actions that spanned nearly a decade.

“The most painful part of trauma is knowing that someone has wronged you,” the victim said, later asking the judge to have the confidence “to put this man away for all that he has done.”

In an another statement from the victim’s mother, also read by McAdams, she described Zenga as manipulative and incapable of remorse.

“I have never known the defendant to learn from his mistakes,” she said.

In court, Zenga tearfully apologized to the victim and all the families he had hurt through his actions.

“I apologize to you for everything that I did,” Zenga said.

Speaking in Zenga’s defense, attorney John Calcagni didn’t dispute his client’s actions were egregious, saying his “misconduct in this case cannot be overstated.” But he argued Zenga suffered from mental illness and thus was capable of rehabilitation, asking McConnell to “impose a sentence of less than his natural life.”

McAdams called for life in prison, arguing Zenga shouldn’t ever be free when the victim is growing up. The federal prosecutor took issue with the defendant’s claims that he was working toward rehabilitation, saying Zenga’s actions in prison so far suggested a pattern of manipulation and self-forgiveness that had started prematurely.

“He has no right to claim he has hit rock bottom,” McAdams said. “He tied a millstone around her neck and threw her off a cliff. We know from her impact statement that she is still falling. He doesn’t get to hit rock bottom before she does.”

“This sentence need to ensure that when she does, he is not there to bother her anymore,” he added.

“At the end of the day, I don’t want to spend any more time on Ronald Zenga — it’s not about him,” McAdams added. “This is about protecting this victim and society from him.”

McConnel ultimately agreed with McAdams, and noted that Zenga does not have the right to appeal the sentence of life in prison in accordance with his plea agreement made earlier this year. In closing, the federal judge addressed the victim, saying he thought they had shown incredible strength throughout the years, and he hoped they could use that strength to live a full life in the future.

“The court believes and knows as a matter of fact that none of this was your fault,” McConnell said.

The victim’s mother said after the sentencing they were thankful the judge “recognized the seriousness of this crime, not just for us, but for all.”

“We can finally, after three years, smile without hesitation and begin to start a new chapter in our lives,” she said.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 managing editor and chief investigative reporter at 12 News, and the host of Newsmakers. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is an investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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