Parents who left toddlers in car alone to attend wine tasting plead guilty

Published 9:09 am Friday, March 20, 2015

WASHINGTON — A couple who left their two toddlers alone in a car while they attended a wine tasting in Georgetown pleaded guilty Thursday to two misdemeanor counts, but prosecutors agreed to drop the case after nine months as part of a plea deal.

Christopher Daniel Lucas, 41, and Jennie Teresa Chang, 46, pleaded guilty to charges of second-degree attempted cruelty to children. As part of the plea deal, both have attended court-ordered parenting classes.

Police said the couple’s children — a boy and a girl, then ages 2 and 3 — were found unattended, strapped in car seats and wearing coats on the afternoon of Jan. 31 near the Ritz-Carlton. The temperature was 35 degrees, and police said the doors were locked and the windows were rolled up.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Brooks on Thursday told D.C. Superior Court Judge Jose M. Lopez that the children were not wearing hats or gloves and that the boy wasn’t wearing shoes.

Lucas and Chang were at the restaurant Ris, police said. The restaurant’s manager told police that the couple were at a wine tasting there for about an hour, according to a police report.

Danny Onorato, one of Chang’s attorneys, called the incident an “unfortunate lapse in judgment.” He said the children, who initially were turned over to D.C. Child and Family Services, were returned to the couple days after the incident. For both parents, he said, it was a first offense.

“They realize their actions were wrong and are eager to place this matter behind them,” he said. “They are pleased that this matter is now resolved and they can focus on raising their children.”

Lucas had told police that he was monitoring the children with a cellphone left in the vehicle, law enforcement officials have said. He said he left an iPhone in the Volvo station wagon with an open connection to Chang, they said.

Lucas and Chang live in a rowhouse near Dupont Circle, about a 10-minute walk from the restaurant.

Lucas told the judge that he was originally from France. According to court papers, he works as a software engineer. Chang, who was born in San Francisco, works as a clinical analyst at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, according to reports filed by a social worker.

The couple showed little reaction during the 15-minute hearing. Chang paused when the judge asked how she was pleading. Her attorneys both turned their heads to look at her. “Guilty,” she then said softly. Lucas responded with “guilty” more quickly.

The initial call about the children came to police about 4:30 p.m. that January day from a State Department lawyer who lives in a condominium above where the car was parked. The lawyer told police that he watched the car for 20 minutes and called when no one appeared.

The children were checked by paramedics and were in good health, police said at the time. According to a social worker’s report, when police arrived, the girl was crying. Her eyes were “red and puffy.” Also according to the report, the girl was wearing a pair of boots, a long-sleeved top, a tutu and tights. The boy was dressed in a pair of cargo pants, a long-sleeved shirt, socks and a diaper.

If the couple had gone to trial and had been convicted, they could have faced the maximum sentence of a year in jail and a fine.

The attorneys said the couple have already attended the court-monitored parenting classes, but a status hearing remains scheduled for June and a final hearing — pending successful completion of the agreement — was set for December.