Orwell photographer charged with sexually assaulting a young girl
MIDDLEBURY — A professional photographer in Orwell pleaded innocent on Monday in Addison Superior Court, criminal division, to several child-related sex crimes — including the alleged aggravated sexual assault of a family member younger than 13.
John Penwarden, 53, was released on $50,000 bail following his arraignment before Judge Robert Mello at the courthouse in Middlebury. Penwarden’s release carries several conditions, including that he have no contact with the alleged victim, nor with any children younger than 16, according to Addison County Deputy State’s Attorney Dennis Wygmans, who is prosecuting the case.
“He is still able to conduct his (photography) business, but he will only have access to photographic equipment and computers in the presence of his business partner, who is his wife,” Wygmans said.
In addition to the felony sex assault charge — for which conviction would carry a 10-years-to-life prison term — Penwarden has also been charged with four counts of possession of child pornography (one a felony, the other three misdemeanors); two felony counts of sexual exploitation of a child; and one felony count of possession of marijuana.
Authorities allege that Penwarden engaged in a sexual act with the girl, in Orwell, during the calendar year 2011, when she was younger than 13.
The case against Penwarden is outlined in a court affidavit filed by Vermont State Police Trooper C.J. Campbell, who began investigating the matter last October. At that time, Campbell travelled to New Hampshire, to meet with the alleged victim and her family. The young girl had allegedly reported to a teacher that her Orwell relative — Penwarden — had “touched her inappropriately,” according to court records. Trooper Campbell said the girl was unwilling to discuss the matter at the time of that initial interview.
The girl’s family told Campbell they were concerned that the girl and Penwarden had been communicating through KIK, a social media/testing app that can be employed by smart phones and users of iPods or computer tablets, according to court records.
Last November, the girl’s family re-established contact with Campbell to say the girl had been making “limited disclosures to them about being sexually assaulted by her (relative), John Penwarden, at his home in Orwell,” Campbell’s affidavit states. They indicated the girl would likely be willing to discuss the matter, which led to a new interview in New Hampshire, according to court records.
The girl’s family during that November meeting showed Campbell two notes the girl had penned about the alleged sexual contact with Penwarden, according to court records. One of the notes alleged that Penwarden had made the girl touch his genitals and took a picture of her private area when she was 9, according to Campbell’s affidavit.
“I think the (sic) has been happening since I was 8 or 9,” the note stated, according to court records. “I can’t remember everything ‘cause I’m trying not to.”
A second note, addressed to the child’s parents, alleges that Penwarden performed oral sex on the girl, according to Campbell’s affidavit.
“Please don’t ask me questions!” the second note reads, according to court records.
“Please don’t hug me or say sorry, it’s not your fault.”
Campbell indicated the girl alleged to him that Penwarden had, “many times in the past … made her touch his penis with her hand while in the bedroom of his home in Vermont,” the affidavit states. “(She) detailed that (Penwarden) had coerced her by offering to give her cash and threatened to take away her iPod is she refused to touch him.”
The girl noted that Penwarden is a photographer and asked Campbell if he could “get her picture off his Website,” according to court records. Campbell asked the alleged victim about photos Penwarden might have taken of her. The girl replied that (Penwarden) “has used his work cameras to take a picture of her vagina,” according to court records.
Authorities executed a search warrant at the Penwarden residence on Young Road in Orwell, according to state police. While authorities carried out a variety of electronic equipment and approximately 10 ounces of suspected marijuana, Penwarden denied having had any sexual contact with the young female relative, nor with any other child, according to court records. He also denied taking any photos of her “other than candid family friendly photos,” according to Campbell’s affidavit.
An exhaustive investigation of the seized material by the Vermont Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC) yielded “76 images of nude male and female children, all sexually explicit, all appearing to range from toddler to early teen,” Campbell’s affidavit states. “Of the 76 images, 50 appear to be that of (the young complainant).”
Campbell said the girl’s father would later confirm his daughter’s face as appearing among those photos uncovered by the ICAC investigation of the evidence seized from Penwarden, according to court records.
Police booked Penwarden at the state police barracks in New Haven this past Friday, May 8. Penwarden again denied knowledge of the images, according to court records.
A perusal of penwardenphotography.com late Monday provided an overview of the business, run by John and Kate Penwarden. The duo offers examples of past work, including winter skiing shots, weddings, pastoral photos and a “people” page featuring children, family and firefighters.
“Trust is about connecting personally and emotionally, it’s why we love this so much,” the site’s “about” narrative reads. “We don’t just take on clients ... we make new friends.”
Penwarden’s listed credentials include director of photography at Bennu Productions in New York City, with an Emmy award as a producer. The couple lists itself as being part of the Professional Photographers of America, Screen Actors Guild, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and Actors Equity Association, according to the website.
Wygmans said the investigation into the Penwarden case is ongoing. Asked if he was concerned about the potential for a widening case, Wygmans said, “I couldn’t comment about that at this point.” Wygmans did note that the other photos in evidence that do not feature the young complainant do not appear to be children from the Addison County area.
“We take all of the sex cases pretty seriously in Addison County,” Wygmans said. “I think any time we are talking about a case that involves exploitation of a child, it’s concerning to us.
“I feel confident that the evidence that was developed is of the nature alleged,” he added.
Penwarden’s next court date will be June 16, according to Wygmans.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
Editor's note: This story was originally posted on Monday, May 11, and updated on Thursday, May 13, with the addition of the photo.