Crime

Former Fresno Unified janitor pleads no contest to child battery charge

A happy Benjamin Wong leaves Fresno Superior Court with his wife, Abigail, right, and his attorney Efan Wu of the Public Defender’s Office. On Thursday, Wong, a former Fresno Unified School District janitor, pleaded no contest to a single charge of misdemeanor battery involving students at Norseman Elementary School. He had originally faced six charges.
A happy Benjamin Wong leaves Fresno Superior Court with his wife, Abigail, right, and his attorney Efan Wu of the Public Defender’s Office. On Thursday, Wong, a former Fresno Unified School District janitor, pleaded no contest to a single charge of misdemeanor battery involving students at Norseman Elementary School. He had originally faced six charges. plopez@fresnobee.com

A former Fresno Unified School District janitor reluctantly pleaded no contest Thursday to misdemeanor battery and was sentenced to three years of probation in a high-profile case in which prosecutors initially accused him of molesting six third-graders on a school campus.

Benjamin Wong was allowed to plea to a single charge because a Fresno Superior Court jury in December found him not guilty on four of six misdemeanor child molestation charges involving four students at Norseman Elementary School in southeast Fresno.

Because the jury hung 6-6 on a molestation charge involving a fifth student and 7-5 on the other molestation charge involving a sixth student, prosecutors could have retried Wong on those two counts. Instead, prosecutor Vanesssa Wong, who is unrelated to the defendant, decided to resolve the case to spare the two children from testifying again.

“It has been an ordeal for them,” the prosecutor told the judge.

In announcing the plea agreement, Vanessa Wong said the first trial took a monthlong toll on the children and their families. After the verdict, she said jurors told her that Wong’s touching of the children was “highly inappropriate” but did not rise to a sexual nature, a key element in proving the child molestation charge.

The plea, she said, will hold Wong accountable.

In accepting Wong’s plea, Judge Jane Cardoza sentenced him immediately to three years of probation and ordered him to pay $640 in fines. She also ordered him to stay away from the two children and their families.

During the hearing, Wong, 54, never apologized for his actions. Afterward, he said: “I’m happy it’s over. I know I am not guilty. I did it (pleaded no contest) to give peace to my family and kids.”

Defense attorney Efan Wu said the plea was appropriate and proves “what we have been saying all along – that there was no sexual element involved. That alone is a victory.”

During his trial, six Norsemen students accused Wong of stroking their hair in a sexual manner, taking photos of them and touching their private parts. If convicted, he could have faced up to six years in jail – one year for each victim.

Wong had worked three years at Norseman before students began complaining about him, but worked for Fresno Unified for more than a decade. Before going to Norseman, no one had complained 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 Fresno Bee’s policy is to not name alleged sex abuse victims.)

During the trial, prosecutor Vanessa Wong told the jury that the janitor “had no business touching those children.” She said he “took away their innocence.”

But attorneys Wu and Roberto Dulce of the Public Defender’s Office said Wong had a stellar record at Ayers and Ewing elementary schools before getting the job at Norseman. No one at Ayers or Ewing ever complained about him, they said.

According to the prosecution, the students, who are now 9 and 10 years old, told Norseman Principal Kimberly Collins and Vice Principal Kevin Her and other school staffers about Wong. “He was warned to stop, but he continued to do it,” Vanessa Wong told jurors. “His interest in children got the best of him.”

But Wu told the jury that the children gave conflicting accounts to Fresno police detectives about what had 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.

The jury hung on a charge involving one of the twins. That charge accused him of patting the girl on her rear. Wong’s lawyers, however, contended that he patted the girl in front of others and did it to encourage her to move along the campus with her classmates.

Jurors also hung on a charge involving a boy who accused Benjamin Wong of asking him to kiss him. Defense lawyers argued that school officials looked into the allegation and determined it to be unfounded.

Wong’s no-contest plea was for the charge involving the girl. In exchange, the prosecution dismissed two counts of misdemeanor child molestation involving the girl and the boy.

Wong tried to take back his plea after the judge told him he would have to pay restitution to the girl’s family. The girl is having a hard time dealing with what happened to her, the prosecutor said, and her family is paying a therapist to counsel her.

Wong said it would be unfair to pay restitution because the girl’s family is suing him and Fresno Unified.

In the end, he pleaded no contest to the battery charge, which constitutes harmful or offensive touching of a child.

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts

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