A tennis instructor who allegedly fled from Palo Alto police Monday (Aug. 8) with four young students in his car, leaving five other students at Cubberley Community Center, said Wednesday the incident is a case of misunderstanding based in part on his lack of mastery of the English language.
Songjian "Jack" Wu, 47, was teaching nine youngsters tennis at Cubberley in south Palo Alto when police approached him at 9:45 a.m. about giving lessons on city property without a license.
Police say he put four children ages 8 to 13 in his car and took off, leaving five others behind, police Agent Max Nielepko said. But Wu said he was moving the children to Rengstorff Park in Mountain View.
"I just wanted the kids to play tennis," Wu said.
Palo Alto's municipal code requires all instructors to have a permit or license from the community-services department to use city facilities, including parks and open space.
Wu currently has a contract with the city for leasing tennis courts at Palo Alto High School and a tentative one for Mitchell Park, which will expire Aug. 19.
Wu's troubles began on Aug. 5, he said, after police informed him that a "citizen" complained he did not have a permit from the city to teach at Mitchell Park. Wu said he believes that rivalries and jealousies between coaches for the city's courts and students have been behind the calls to police. He said he had tried to contact Shia Geminder, city recreation supervisor and facilities manager, to discuss finalizing the Mitchell Park contract on Aug. 5 without success.
Geminder could not be reached for comment.
The Aug. 5 contact with police resulted in a misdemeanor citation for giving false information to police. Nielepko said the police report indicates Wu gave an incorrect name. But Wu said he gave his American name, Jack Wu, instead of his legal name, Songjian Wu, which is the name on his driver's license.
Three days later, Wu emailed Geminder with a request to reserve two courts at Mitchell Park. He said he then brought his students to Cubberley, since it was closer to Geminder's office, so he could get the contract for Mitchell Park.
Geminder arrived at the court and informed Wu that he had to leave, Wu said. That's when he put four of his students into his vehicle and transported them to Rengstorff. He left a tennis-ball machine and balls at the court and told the remaining children to practice until he returned.
But police arrived around the time he was leaving, and Nielepko said officers believed Wu had fled with the four children and abandoned the others. Police called Wu on his cell phone and demanded to know where the children were, Nielepko said.
Wu allegedly gave conflicting information regarding the children's whereabouts, but he then said the children were left at Rengstorff. Police called the children's parents and Mountain View police, who found the four children at the park. They were not harmed, Nielepko said.
Wu said he returned to Cubberley to pick up the other children, but instead he was arrested and booked into the San Jose Main Jail. He was released on $45,500 bail.
The case against Wu is under review, said Santa Clara County Supervising Deputy District Attorney Rob Baker. Wu could be charged with child endangerment and additional charges, he said. He is scheduled for arraignment Sept. 23.
Wu, an American citizen who was born in China, said he thinks things were misunderstood because of his faltering English. He also stammers.
"I think maybe I was talking too fast. I'm in big trouble now," he said.
Wu said he has two children of his own. It is the first time he has ever left children unsupervised, he said.
"I'm not saying I'm right. I feel bad. I just wanted them to be able to play," he said.
Parents and colleagues contacted by the Weekly said they are sure the incident is a misunderstanding and that Wu has always been a responsible person.
"He's really great. He dedicates a lot of time to really working with the kids," said Alma Lalonde, whose son, Nick, has taken lessons from Wu for two years. "He'll pick up any kids if you are tied up. He accommodates. He's so good with the kids; he takes them out for ice cream," she said.
She described Wu as a dedicated coach who loves the game. Sometimes he doesn't even ask for payment, she said.
"This is so crazy. I'm horrified that this is happening to him. I can totally see him moving the kids from one court to another. He just wants the kids to play," she said.
Ken DeHart, a U.S. Professional Tennis Association master professional coach, said he tested Wu and certified him to teach through the Professional Tennis Registry. He said he knows Wu fairly well and can't imagine that he would abandon his students.
"He has a sense of responsibility. I feel pretty confident that it wasn't this way," he said of the allegations.
Bruce Deng, a parent, agreed. His children sometimes play at Saratoga High School with Wu, he said.
"He's a really good guy. We enjoy having him as a coach for the kids," Deng said. He said he has seen firsthand how Wu handles the kids. One day Deng took a day off to help Wu at Mitchell Park, which is a preferred place to play because it is one of the only courts with shade, he said.
Baker said the incident should be a lesson to parents about who they trust with their children -- even teachers.
Wu "showed extremely poor judgment. In this day and age, it's not safe for an 8-year-old to be left alone in a park. ... As a parent, I would have been outraged and terrified," Baker said.
Wu, a Mountain View resident, has a coaching license from the Professional Tennis Registry and more than $8 million in insurance, documents of which he provided to the Weekly. He has a contract to use courts from the West Valley/Mission College District.