Jesse Cheng is used to being recognized as he walks between classes at UC Irvine. He is, after all, the University of California Governing Board's representative for 200,000 students at 10 UC campuses, But the stares the 22-year-old Asian studies major has been getting lately are different.
"There have been a number of people looking at me; it's very scary at times," he told the Weekly by phone from a quiet corner on campus last week. "Actually, I'm kind of scared shitless."
The funny looks began Feb. 15, when UCI's New University student newspaper reported Cheng had been arrested on suspicion of sexual battery—way back on Nov. 4, 2010. The incident that produced the arrest happened the previous Oct. 3 in Cheng's off-campus apartment near the university, and was reported to Irvine Police on Oct. 26. Shortly after the arrest, Irvine detectives forwarded the case as a misdemeanor sexual battery to the Orange County district attorney's office (OCDA), which declined to file charges.
Cheng claims he's innocent, that "a messy relationship" and "really bad breakup" are at the center of the allegations against him by a young woman he'd dated for a year. "Nothing of the sort happened," he says of the alleged rape attempt.
Susan Kang Schroeder, the OCDA chief of staff, said the case is not strong enough to win a conviction because Cheng and the woman had a prior relationship, she did not report the alleged crime for three weeks, and she saw him again after the incident.
"Based on all those facts, at this time there is not sufficient evidence to prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt," Schroeder said. "Should at any point further evidence be submitted that can get this beyond a reasonable doubt, we are always willing to review the case for a misdemeanor sexual battery charge."
After Cheng's arrest, the woman also alerted UCI's Office of Student Conduct, which, other than indicating it is still investigating, has been tightlipped due to student and victim privacy laws. University of California's senior vice president-chief compliance and audit officer will review the campus investigation to ensure it is fair—but not whether the allegations against Cheng are true, UC President Mark Yudof's office announced last week.
With the misdemeanor criminal case dead—or at least in limbo pending more evidence—the woman identified by the New University as "Laya" opened up to the paper; the story ran under the dual byline of managing editor Traci Garling Lee and editor David Gao. "I hesitated to talk to the New U for a long time because I was scared Jesse would retaliate, and as someone in his position, he has people around him who can and who have gone out of their way to silence me and convince me not to report the assault," Laya reportedly told the paper. "I don't want to let him silence me anymore."
The Weekly has been unable to reach Laya.
To claims the UC student regent wields such power, Cheng said, "Do you want to be super-real? Trust me, this post doesn't have power to do anything. . . . I can't even stop a fee increase from happening. . . . Politically, no one's protecting my ass. . . . Last year, people were graffiti-ing on my door over the fee increase. I couldn't even stop that. . . . I have no influence over that case; I do not even have enough power to defend my innocence."
New U reported that e-mails exist between Cheng and Laya that have him apologizing for attacking her.
Cheng explained these in a Feb. 21 statement he issued due to media reports about the incident. In it, he says he saw his "partner" of a year three times after they broke up: the first time as her date to a UCLA event; the second, the Oct. 3 dinner and movie at his apartment, during which they shared consensual kisses but, Cheng claims, no sex; and, finally, a meeting at her apartment in which, he claims, they "engaged in physical intimacy" that she "initiated."
He further states that a week after the dinner date, she called and accused him of sexually assaulting her and went on to phone him up to 50 times per day before he agreed to their last encounter at her apartment. This, Cheng claims, was followed by more calls and e-mails, some of which contained demands that he write her an apology using specific language. He says he finally gave in to end things once and for all. Cheng was arrested on campus shortly thereafter, taken to the Irvine Police station for questioning and, after explaining their relationship to investigators, released three hours later.
"I do not know why my former partner has chosen to make these accusations, or make them at this time," Cheng ends his statement. "I loved her very much, and I really wish for her the best in the future."
Four days before Cheng's statement, the Los Angeles-based nonprofit feminist-rights group Mariposa Center for Change issued its own. "We are concerned that there has been no response from the DA's office or no decision from the University of California, Irvine's Student Conduct Office," says Ivy Quicho, executive director. "These actions point to a lack of urgency to address the attack of a student, at best, and a blatant cover-up to protect a UC student regent, at worst." Laya is also quoted telling Mariposa, "I knew I had to say something; what if he did this to someone else? He has to be held accountable."
Cheng said that throughout his college career, he has stood up against violence against women. He finds the accusations against him "mind-blowing."
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As the UC student regent, the Cupertino native attends meetings of the regents and their committees. He's also active on campus, particularly with UCI's Associated Student Union, the Student Fee Advisory Committee and the Asian Pacific Student Association. In the wake of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi jumping to his death on Sept. 22, 2010—after video was streamed online of the 18-year-old's sexual encounter with a man in his dorm room without Clementi's knowledge—Cheng disclosed at a UCI memorial that he is bisexual.
Asked about rumors swirling around campus that Cheng tried to convince New U to kill the story and threatened to sue the paper, reporter Lee would not comment because Cheng's conversations were off the record. Asked by the Weekly if he planned to take legal action against New U, Cheng said, "I'm going to be real: It's a campus newspaper. I support the work they do. I might not like it, I might think this was a harsh article, but I support the work they do." He did add one caveat. "If they go ahead and do something else . . . maybe."
This article appeared in print as "UC Irvine’s Ex Scandal: University of California student regent Jesse Cheng fights off former girlfriend’s attempted-rape allegation—and draws stares around UCI."