Crime

Former Fresno Unified janitor on trial on charges of molesting students, but he says it did not happen

Benjamin Wong, 54, leaves a Fresno courtroom Tuesday, where he faces misdemeanor charges of annoying or molesting six third-graders at Norseman Elementary School. In the background is his wife, Abigail.
Benjamin Wong, 54, leaves a Fresno courtroom Tuesday, where he faces misdemeanor charges of annoying or molesting six third-graders at Norseman Elementary School. In the background is his wife, Abigail. plopez@fresnobee.com

Benjamin Wong had a stellar record as a janitor with the Fresno Unified School District for 15 years until he went to work at Norseman Elementary School in southeast Fresno.

There, a group of third-graders accused him of petting their hair in a sexual manner, taking photos of them and touching their private parts.

Wong, 54, is on trial in Fresno County Superior Court, accused of six misdemeanor charges of annoying or molesting children. If convicted he faces up to six years in jail – one year for each alleged victim.

He took away their innocence.

Prosecutor Vanessa Wong

One of Wong’s lawyers, Roberto Dulce, however, says the criminal case resembles the McMartin preschool case, but on a smaller scale.

In the 1980s, members of the McMartin family, who operated a preschool in Southern California, were charged with numerous acts of sexual abuse of children in their care. After six years of criminal trials, no convictions were obtained, and all charges were dropped in 1990, in what was one of the most expensive criminal cases in American history.

“The evidence will show Mr. Wong is not guilty,” Dulce said.

But prosecutor Vanessa Wong, who is not related to the defendant, told the jury on Tuesday in opening statements of the trial that she has ample evidence to convict Benjamin Wong. “He had no business touching those children,” the prosecutor said. “He took away their innocence.”

Benjamin Wong worked at Ayers and Ewing elementary schools before getting the job at Norseman Elementary. Before working at Norseman, no one at Ayers or Ewing ever complained about him, said defense attorney Efan Wu, who is also representing the defendant. He had worked at Norseman three years before students began complaining about him, Wu told the jury.

The charges stem from alleged incidents that happened between August 2014 and May 2015. The alleged victims are four girls, including twins, and two boys. (The Bee’s policy is to not name alleged sex abuse victims.)

The charges stem from alleged incidents that happened at Norseman Elementary between August 2014 and May 2015. The alleged victims include four girls, including twins, and two boys.

The prosecutor told the jury that the evidence will show that Benjamin Wong touched the third-graders inappropriately. The alleged victims are now 9 and 10 years old. All six of them will testify against Benjamin Wong, the prosecutor said. In addition, two other students will testify and corroborate the accounts of the alleged victims, Vanessa Wong said.

The prosecution also plans to call Caroline Dower of the Family Healing Center in Fresno. Dower is an expert in talking with children of child abuse and has interviewed the alleged victims, Vanessa Wong said.

According to the prosecution, the students told the Norseman principal, Kimberly Collins, and vice principal Kevin Her and other school staffers about Benjamin Wong. “He was warned to stop, but he continued to do it,” Vanessa Wong told the jury. “His interest in children got the best of him.”

But Wu said in her opening statement that the children gave conflicting accounts to Fresno police detectives about what happened to them. Wu also said detectives interviewed the twins in the same room so they were able to hear what each of them told the detectives. In addition, a majority of the alleged victims are friends and many of them are in the same classroom, Wu told the jury.

It was not done in a sexual manner.

Defense attorney Efan Wu

According to Wu, the twins were the first of the six to make their accusations against Benjamin Wong in May 2015. Their mother then called the Fresno Police Department. Detectives interviewed the twins again in May this year and added new allegations against the defendant, Wu said.

The twins told detectives that Benjamin Wong started touching them inappropriately in the second grade, but they never told their mother until she made the phone call to police, Wu said.

As part of the investigation, detectives interviewed staff and students at Norseman, as well as Benjamin Wong’s children. Wu said detectives found no evidence of abuse or molestation in the defendant’s home.

Some of the alleged victims accused Benjamin Wong of taking photographs of them. But he voluntarily turned over his cellphone to police and not one photograph of a Norseman student was found, Wu said.

Wu said some of the evidence wasn’t physically possible. For example, the twins said they were in a bathroom stall when Benjamin Wong came in the restroom with a mop. One twin said Wong placed the handle of the the mop under the stall door and touched her private part. The other twin gave a similar account, but said Wong touched her private part with the head of the mop.

One of the boys accused Wong of asking him to kiss him. But Wu said Wong and the boy were not in the same area or close enough to kiss.

Also improbable, Wu said, is that some of the students accused Wong of stroking their hair or touching their private parts in the school cafeteria in front of large gatherings. One student even said Wong slapped her cheek, but the school nurse told police she saw no marks on the student, Wu said.

The principal and Her did warn Benjamin Wong one or two times, but that was because he has a habit of invading a person’s personal space, Wu said. But he does that with adults and children, she said.

If touching occurred, Wu said, Benjamin Wong did it affectionately, like patting a child on the back or tussling a child’s hair. “It was not done in a sexual manner,” she told the jury.

The trial continues Wednesday before Judge Jonathan Conklin.

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts

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