5 Years For Ex-Karate Instructor

OCEAN CITY — A Salisbury martial arts instructor who pleaded guilty to sex abuse of a minor in March in both Worcester and Wicomico Counties was sentenced last week in Worcester to 15 years with all but five years suspended.

Last October, Zachariah Bennett, 26, of Salisbury, was indicted by a Wicomico County grand jury on 29 total counts including first-degree rape for his alleged illicit activities involving minors while employed as an instructor at Mitchell’s Mixed Martial Arts in Salisbury. In November, a Worcester County grand jury indicted Bennett on five total counts ranging from sexual abuse of a minor sexual abuse of a minor to second-, third- and fourth-degree sex offenses stemming from similar incidents at an Ocean City amusement park last August.

Over the course of two days last fall, Bennett pleaded guilty in Worcester County Circuit Court to one count of sexual abuse of a minor and a pre-sentence investigation and mental health assessment were ordered.

The next day, Bennett appeared again in Wicomico County Circuit Court to face the indictments in that jurisdiction and pleaded guilty to three counts of sexual abuse of a minor. The guilty pleas in both jurisdictions carry a maximum penalty of 75 years in prison.

In the Worcester County cases, Bennett was indicted on five total counts stemming from an incident carried out outside an amusement park in Ocean City from Aug. 1 to Aug. 31, 2016.

In the Wicomico County incidents, Bennett was charged for a series of incidents from May 2015 to September 2015. According to court documents, the incidents started with sexually-explicit text messages from Bennett and co-defendant Leah Wright, 21, to teenage girls under their direction as martial arts instructors and escalated into sexually physical acts with the minor victims.

Back in court in Worcester last Thursday, Bennett was sentenced to 15 years, all but five of which were then suspended. He was also required to register as a Tier III sex offender. While Bennett has pleaded guilty in Wicomico, his sentencing hearing has been set for Nov. 8 in that county.

Meanwhile, Wright, who was also charged in Wicomico for her alleged participation in the incidents at the martial arts complex, is set to appear for trial in that county on Oct. 24. Wright was not implicated in the incidents involving Bennett in Ocean City.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

Alternative Text

Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.