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COURT HOUSE – A former Cape May business owner who claimed a 13-year-old boy, with whom he had a sexual encounter, lied about his age cannot use that as a defense at trial, Appellate Court judges decided May 31. 

William F. Saponaro Jr., a former construction company owner who lives in Philadelphia, was arrested in June 2012 after partaking in a threesome involving the teenager.

Judges Francis Vernoia and Scott Moynihan rejected Saponaro’s motion to present at trial that he was reasonably mistaken about the victim’s age.

Saponaro’s codefendant Mark LeMunyon of Cape May met the victim on the mobile dating app Grindr and the two arranged a sexual encounter in June 2012.

LeMunyon, 24 at the time, invited then-52-year-old Saponaro to join the rendezvous that ended up in Saponaro’s Cape May home.

The following day, the victim told his mother what happened, and he was taken to the hospital for evaluation. Cape May Police arrested Saponaro and LeMunyon less than a week later and charged them with aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of a child.

In Cape May County Superior Court in 2015, Judge Patricia Wild denied Saponaro’s attempt to have the charges dropped based on his belief that the boy was of legal age of consent.

Saponaro then pleaded guilty to third-degree endangering the welfare of a child and fourth-degree criminal coercion. His plea bargain requested the dismissal of second-degree sexual assault.

Saponaro appealed the decision, arguing that the law was unconstitutional because it prevented him from defending himself. He upheld his belief that the teenager was 18 years of age because the boy told him he was 18, the boy looked 18 to Saponaro, and because Grindr requires users to pay by credit card, which Saponaro implied only adults have.

The law that rejects the mistaken-age defense specifies that “even if such a mistaken belief was reasonable,” it “shall be no defense to a prosecution for a crime.” Mistaken-age defenses have been rejected since a Supreme Court ruling in 1969.

“The statute imposing strict liability for sexual relations both protects the public, i.e., minor children, and acts as a strong deterrent to sexual attacks on those children,” judges wrote in their decision. “[The law] does not violate defendant’s due process rights. It is a proper exercise of the Legislature.”

The appellate decision came two years after Saponaro’s attempt to sue Grindr for negligence because a minor was able to access the site meant for adults.

Chief U.S. District Court Jerome Simandle ruled that Grindr was protected by the federal Communications Decency Act and was not accountable for its users’ choices.

LeMunyon, a former substitute teacher, pleaded guilty in 2013 to criminal sexual contact and conspiracy to endanger the welfare of a child. He was sentenced to 18 months in county jail followed by three years’ probation, and his teaching credentials were revoked, according to a report by NJ1015.com. He did not join Saponaro’s appeal.

“The sexual assault of a child is not passive conduct. It is not blameless,” the appeal decision continued. “Sexual offenders cannot reasonably plead ignorance of a victim’s age. The face-to-face violation provides ample notice to the perpetrator that the victim is a minor.”

To contact Taylor Henry, email thenry@cmcherald.com

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