A Clovis teacher used his darkened, empty classroom to take video of a blindfolded second-grade girl giving him oral sex in what he called "the lollipop game," a federal investigator says.
The disturbing accounts and videos, dating as far back as Jan. 3, came to light after the victim's mother became suspicious because she could not see her daughter outside with the rest of her class in physical education at Freedom Elementary School last Thursday.
The girl's teacher, Neng Yang, 43, also was not with his class.
By 5 a.m. Saturday, he was in jail. Yang made a brief appearance Monday in U.S. District Court in Fresno, where he pleaded not guilty to a charge of producing child pornography.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Fresno Bee
Yang's arrest shocked parents at Freedom Elementary, a newer school at the northwest corner of Gettysburg and Locan avenues. He had been a teacher there since 2007, and some parents interviewed Monday said he had been considered a good teacher. Now, some parents are questioning whether their children may also have been abused. Clovis police said no other victims have come forward, but detectives were fielding many calls Monday.
Tony Varni's fourth-grade daughter had been in Yang's class in second grade. "I'm absolutely, 100% stunned" by the arrest, he said Monday afternoon as he waited to pick up his daughter from the school.
"She used to help him after school," Varni said. "She's pretty taken aback."
Although his daughter says Yang never harmed her, Varni said he still worries. "We're just trying to get through this. I'm not sleeping, but we're praying," he said.
Parent Kao Lee said she worried that Yang's arrest would hurt community perceptions of the Hmong people.
"I'm Hmong, he's a Hmong teacher. It's a setback for us," said Lee, who has a child in another second-grade class. "I have cousins who had him at another school. They said he was a good teacher.
"You have to trust people with your children, but you can't watch them 24 hours a day," Lee said.
Mailee Thao, whose second-grade child was not in Yang's class, said she was saddened by his arrest. "He had a reputation for being a wonderful teacher. Most people I know were looking forward to their children being in his class."
School officials met Sunday with parents of students in Yang's class. On Monday evening, officials held a closed-door meeting that drew hundreds of parents of students at the school.
District officials provided parents some details of the investigation, and Clovis police detectives were available to talk privately with parents who might have more information about Yang.
"The severity of this situation is unlike anything our district can remember," Clovis Unified spokeswoman Kelly Avants said Monday night.
Parents also were given a handout with suggestions on how to discuss what happened if their children ask questions. Among the suggestions: "If your child asks questions, provide him or her with information in an age-appropriate way. Let your child's questions guide you. Avoid sharing information which your child hasn't asked about."
After the event, many parents expressed the range of emotions on display during the session, from anger and anxiety to sadness.
"Before the meeting, I was at the point that I thought I needed to get my kid out of here," said Natalie Torres, whose son attends kindergarten at Freedom Elementary. "I got the answers I was looking for, but I'm still upset."
And Torres was still wary.
"I couldn't believe they said that 'everyone on staff can be trusted' after this," Torres said. "That trust issue will be in the back of my mind, no matter what school my son goes to."
The case began unfolding Thursday afternoon when the girl's mother arrived at Freedom Elementary about 45 minutes before school let out and couldn't see her daughter among classmates taking part in physical education, according to the federal investigator's sworn statement made public Monday.
After school let out, the mother asked her daughter why she wasn't with the rest of her class. The girl told her mother that Yang kept her out of physical education to play "the lollipop game," the statement said.
She told her mother that Yang locked the classroom doors with just the two of them inside, turned off the lights and blindfolded her. He then gave the girl what she said were three different flavored lollipops to taste.
The mother called Clovis police to report possible sexual abuse, Robert Benesiewicz, special agent with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security office in Fresno, said in his statement.
"Yang would only hold the lollipops but she was so close to him that she could feel his clothing on her face," Benesiewicz said. "Based on the action the described and demonstrated, it appears is having the complete the act or simulation of oral sex."
Clovis police arrived on the Freedom Elementary campus late Thursday to launch their investigation. They found items in the classroom as the girl had described and they spoke with Yang, taking his iPhone as evidence.
When asked by officers, Yang denied the "lollipop game" occurred.
The school's administration allowed police to inspect Yang's classroom computer. Detectives found 75 images of bestiality and images in the search history of "adult teen titled pornography." The computer had been used about 10 p.m. Wednesday under Yang's user name.
On Friday, Clovis police examined Yang's cellphone and discovered several images of the blindfolded girl inside what detectives described as Yang's classroom. The photos had Thursday's time stamp, according to Benesiewicz.
His statement went on to describe sex acts involving Yang and the girl: Nine videos were found on Yang's phone of the girl giving him oral sex while blindfolded. Yang's face could not be seen but "his voice is clearly heard and was recognized ... as belonging to Yang based on his previous interview."
Two other hard drives were found in a black computer bag in Yang's classroom. The hard drives had at least two other sets of videos with the girl blindfolded and orally copulating Yang.
Those videos were created on Jan. 3, the first day of school after winter break, and on Jan. 12 and also were taken in Yang's classroom, Benesiewicz said.
Federal prosecutor Brian Enos said if Yang is convicted, he would face at least 15 years in federal prison and possibly as much as 30 years. He also could face a $250,000 fine and a lifetime of probation after his release.
Yang might also face child-molestation charges, but a timeline wasn't clear Monday. Fresno County District Attorney's Office spokeswoman Sonia De La Rosa said a decision on possible charges would hinge on the Clovis police report, which the DA's office hadn't received.
Yang was returned to the Fresno County Jail pending a Thursday hearing to determine if he can go free while his case makes its way through the court system. A jail official said Yang is in administrative segregation, housed in a two-man cell.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis Beck also set a Feb. 10 preliminary hearing date, but that will almost certainly not happen because the federal government will seek a grand jury indictment before then, Enos said.
Yang was represented Monday by Federal Defender Francine Zepeda, but Fresno attorney Brian Andritch said he "likely will" be retained by Yang.
Andritch, a former Fresno County prosecutor, declined to comment further, as did Enos.
Yang's wife, Kia Yang, is the principal at Miramonte Elementary School in the Clovis Unified School District. She was previously a learning director at Buchanan High School and a vice principal at Reyburn Intermediate. She was not at her job Monday, Avants said.
Some Miramonte parents kept their children home from school on Monday because of the attention Neng Yang's arrest caused.
"As a parent, I'm very concerned," said Sam Mireles, whose third-grade student stayed home. "Everyone was startled and wondering" if Neng Yang had ever visited the Miramonte campus.
Jennifer and Christopher Hall kept their fourth-grade child home and discussed the need to be careful around strangers.
"We had the 'stranger-danger' talk," because teachers are essentially strangers, she said. "You don't know them that well."