A former faculty member at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport was sentenced Friday in U.S. District Court to life in prison after confessing in the course of a child pornography investigation that he had sexually abused his minor child.
Ronald W. Zenga, a retired Navy pilot, was arrested in 2018 after federal law enforcement officers raided his Middletown home and found child pornography on his computer. The raid followed a tip from an undercover officer in the United Kingdom who had been communicating with Zenga on a Russian file-sharing site.
During those conversations, Zenga “graphically described ongoing sexual encounters with a young minor child […] dating back to the child’s prepubescent years,” prosecutors said. At Friday’s sentencing hearing, assistant U.S. Attorney John McAdams said that Zenga had believed he was “chatting with another pervert” and invited the stranger to come to his home and join him in the abuse.
Zenga pleaded guilty in November to charges that he coerced a minor to engage in illicit sexual conduct, and that he distributed, received and possessed child pornography.
Prosecutors had requested the life sentence, arguing in a sentencing memo that Zenga “abused the most sacred trust a human being can be given, responsibility for the health and well-being of another living soul, his own child.”
Zenga broke down in sobs as a statement from his victim was read out loud in the courtroom, vividly describing how nearly a decade of sexual abuse had resulted in stunted emotional development and severe trust issues.
The anxiety caused by the abuse “keeps me constantly on my toes and means that I’m never able to relax, even if I’m in my room, which is supposed to be a safe space,” the victim wrote.
The victim also described experiencing “strange physical reactions similar to Tourette’s,” and frequent heart palpitations from anxiety.
Prosecutors also read a statement from Zenga’s ex-wife, who described Zenga’s conduct as “pure unadulterated manipulation” and compared him to “the Jeffrey Epsteins of the world.” She said that in the 20 years that she had known Zenga, she had never seen him grow from his mistakes, only get better at avoiding being caught.
Saying that she and her child had experienced “nothing less than a lifetime of pain and trauma that will follow us for the rest of our days,” Zenga’s ex-wife asked Chief Judge John J. McConnell Jr. to “allow us the chance to heal without ever looking over our shoulders again.”
Both Zenga’s child and ex-wife said in their statements that they were choosing not to appear in the courtroom because they did not want to give Zenga the satisfaction of seeing their faces or hearing their voices.
During Friday’s hearing, Zenga’s lawyers made the case that a life sentence was excessive, noting that Zenga had voluntarily confessed to the abuse when being questioned for the child pornography investigation, and that he had devoted himself to seeking out counseling and mental health treatment since his arrest.
Zenga “does not deserve to spend life in prison” and “has a lot more to offer the world,” attorney John L. Calcagni III told the judge.
In a sentencing memorandum, Calcagni noted that Zenga himself was a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a babysitter, and later was sexually assaulted while serving in the Navy. Zenga never reported either incident and “never received any counseling or mental health treatment” before he was jailed, Calcagni wrote.
Zenga held the rank of lieutenant commander when he retired from the Navy in 2017 and holds a master’s degree from the Naval War College, where he taught in the War Gaming Department prior to his arrest.
During the the three years that he has been in incarcerated at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, Zenga has also sought treatment for the post-traumatic stress disorder that he suffers as a result of his time in the military, including commanding a helicopter squadron in Iraq, Calcagni said.
Zenga “has the makings of being able to be rehabilitated” and could potentially safely return to society if he gets the right treatment, Calcagni argued at Friday’s sentencing.
McConnell was unconvinced by that argument, saying that he had extensively studied the literature on whether sex offenders are likely to reoffend and found it to be inconclusive. He commended Zenga for his “fine work” seeking to be rehabilitated, but said that anything short of a life sentence “will not give me confidence” that Zenga would not commit similar crimes in the future.
“I hope you find a way to live a positive life,” he told Zenga, adding that “it just won’t be with the liberties that the rest of us enjoy.”
McConnell described Zegna’s victim as “so incredibly articulate, smart, together, human — more so than I’ve ever seen from a victim.” In addition to court costs, he ordered Zenga to pay $500,000 to the victim in restitution.
Before the sentence was handed down, Zenga spoke for about half an hour, frequently breaking down with emotion as he apologized for his “immoral, unconscionable” behavior.
“Your words make it crystal clear that my memory and my presence is not desired,” he told his victim, pledging not to contact his family from prison. “But I want you to know that I love you and I will not stop working to repair the damage that I have done to you.”
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