A former Clovis teacher pleaded guilty Monday to federal charges of molesting a second-grade girl two years ago.
The plea in U.S. District Court in Fresno is the latest chapter in a sordid case that resulted in Clovis Unified School District agreeing to a $2 million civil settlement with the girl's family and brought shame to the Hmong community, where teachers are role models and held in high regard.
Neng Yang, 46, signed a 14-page plea agreement March 19, but it wasn't until Monday that his guilty plea became official.
Under the agreement, he pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual exploitation of a child in exchange for 38 years in prison and a fine of $250,000. The actual sentence, however, will be determined by U.S. District Court Judge Anthony Ishii, who can accept the 38-year prison term or reject it at Yang's sentencing hearing on June 2.
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If rejected, Yang could be tried in front of a jury.
Until Ishii makes his ruling, Yang will remain in the Fresno County Jail without bail.
Police say Yang locked his classroom door, blindfolded a student and tricked her into playing a sexual game with him at Freedom Elementary School. He was arrested Jan. 27, 2012, after police discovered video of repeated molestation of the student on his cell phone, court records said.
Yang was hired by Clovis Unified as an instructional aide in 1993. He began his teaching career at Fancher Creek Elementary in 1997 and transferred to Freedom in 2007, where he worked until his arrest.
Clovis Unified School District fired him in March 2012, and his wife, Kia, later divorced him.
A year ago, Clovis Unified paid the girl's family $2 million to settle a lawsuit over the sexual abuse that occurred in December 2011 and January 2012.
Since Yang's arrest, federal and state prosecutors have been fighting over the case. Federal prosecutors filed charges first -- on Jan. 30, 2012. The District Attorney's Office filed charges two days later.
Yang wanted the federal court to have jurisdiction because in Superior Court he faces 45 felony counts of child molestation. If convicted in Superior Court, he would have faced life in state prison.
But a Superior Court conviction could be moot. On March 11 Ishii ruled that Yang was in federal custody.
Charles Lee, who represents Yang in federal court, declined to comment Monday. But attorney Margarita Martinez-Baly, who is defending Yang in Superior Court, said she was pleased to hear that Yang pleaded guilty in federal court.
Because it happened in federal court, Yang will go to a federal prison, said Martinez-Baly, who added that federal prison is much safer for Yang than the overcrowded state prison system. Martinez-Baly also said Yang will have to do his full sentence in federal court before he can be tried on the Superior Court charges. A hearing on the issue is scheduled for April 10 in Superior Court.
"He will be an old man by then, or dead," Martinez-Baly said.