The historic Proprietary House in Perth Amboy was all set to hold a historic reenactment June 16 of the arrest of William Franklin, the last royal governor of New Jersey when it was still a colony.
The event, held for more than two decades, is a big attraction with history buffs, and it always draws a crowd of school children. This year it was to have a special meaning, marking the 250th anniversary of the historic mansion.
But not this year. The event was supposedly cancelled because the Perth Amboy Board of Education ruled the off limits to the district's school children because a convicted sex offender was serving on the organizations' Board of Trustees.
Kurt Epps heard about the allegations, and he was appalled. Epps has portrayed William Franklin - the son of founding father Benjamin Franklin - in the reenactments at the mansion for 23 years.
"I didn't know if it was true. So I looked up the man's name on the state's sex offender registry. Sure enough, he was there," Epps said.
Sex offender on the board?
Kevin Wenng, 30, of Cliffwood Beach, was the Proprietary House treasurer and a board of trustees member. He is also listed as a Tier 2 registered sex offender in the New Jersey State Police's database.
Wenng was convicted in 2007 of endangering the welfare of a child and with engaging in the distribution of Internet child pornography, according to the NJ State Police database.
When Epps realized that the accusation against Wenng was true, he said he and his fellow reenactor, Gene Hoyas, contacted Jeff Huber, who is president of both the Proprietary House's board of trustees and executive board.
"This was days before the reenactment," Hoyas said. "Huber never returned any of Epps' phone calls."
Both men were getting upset and angry at what they said was Huber's stonewalling of Wenng's sex offender profile.
"We have kids here all the time," Epps said. "[Wenng] should've left immediately."
By Friday, the day before the reenactment, Huber returned Epps' phone call. "He wanted to know what was going on for the reenactment on Saturday. He acted as if Kurt had never called him."
'He has rights'
Huber said he "had been aware" of Wenng's sex offender conviction, and that on advice of the board of trustees' attorney, they "had to be careful" how they handled the situation.
"We didn't want to deprive him of his rights," Huber said. The attorney he consulted, he said, was another board member who is a lawyer.
Wenng had been a member of the Proprietary House Association for "awhile". "He introduced computers to the gift shop. He helped us increase our efficiency," which is why he was chosen to serve as treasurer, Huber said.
Wenng was treasurer for only a month before he was removed, Huber added.
The man "wasn't a docent or a volunteer. He didn't have any contact with children. He was never [at the Proprietary House]," Huber said, adding that the board of trustees holds their meetings at the historic mansion.
Both Epps and Hoyas told Huber that if Wenng wasn't gone immediately, they were dropping out of doing the reenactment on June 16.
Huber, they said, beat them to it. "He said he was replacing both of us in the reenactment with actors," Epps said. "A whole new cast of characters."
The next day, though, an announcement appeared that for the first time in 23 year history of the event, it was being cancelled.
Insult was added to injury, Epps said, when "People were told it was cancelled because I didn't show up," said Epps. "That was completely untrue."
Meanwhile, Epps and Hoyas kept a watch on the Proprietary House website and noticed that Wenng was still being listed as part of the board and treasurer.
"I've been arrested every year for 23 years," Epps said about his portrayal of the former royal governor during the 20-minute reenactment scene. "Every year, the audience is packed. There are tons of kids. We let them tour the house, and take pictures with us in costume.
"Kids come to this place. We couldn't let him stay, not just because of the [sex offender] conviction, but because of what that kind of publicity could have for the Proprietary House."
Epps finally contacted State Senator Joe Vitale (D-19) and gave him the information. Vitale in turn contacted the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office.
Within a day of that, Wenng was off the board of trustees.
"The prosecutor's office found out it was true, and they informed both [Wenng] and the board that he was to leave the organization immediately," Vitale said.
Wenng "was not to participate in an organization involved with children. It was inconsistent with the terms of his parole."
Vitale is a history fan himself, and a huge supporter of the Proprietary House. "This is bigger than any of us. We need to maintain the integrity of the house itself. The house is meaningful to a lot of people," he said.
Both men credit Vitale and the Prosecutor's Office with helping preserve the integrity of the organization and keeping young visitors safe.
"Senator Vitale asked me if I'd agree to do the reenactment" after the Wenng affair was over, Epps said - something to which the man has been obviously dedicated.
But it turns out the entire unpleasantness isn't over yet.
Huber said that the board is mulling over whether the arrest reenactment would be rescheduled. It's also problematic if he will allow Epps or Hoyas to reprise their historic scenes.
"It's under consideration," said Huber. "I have nothing else to say about it."
Huber, who also serves as township historian in Woodbridge and is president of Woodbridge's historical society, said that they'd be instituting background checks of volunteers from now on.
Hoyas had devoted several entries in his blog to what he called "the shenanigans" of the Proprietary House board.
"The foot-dragging and intransigence on this matter was unbelievable," he said. "Huber thinks he's untouchable. We're not returning until the entire executive board resigns or is replaced."
In this case, it is all about the children, insofar as history is concerned. "You can't keep history alive with only older folks who enjoy the history aspect. You have to keep kids excited," Epps said. "The reenactments and events keep children interested and involved.
"This has to be cleaned up."