A newlywed accused of groping a sleepy college student on his way home from his honeymoon in Hawaii has told a court he ‘can’t imagine’ he did ‘something like that’, but admitted that he “caressed his wife when he slept”.
Town shopkeeper Robert Van Den Bergh, 37, allegedly slipped his hand under a blanket to deliberately stroke the passenger’s thigh as he sat next to her in economy class on the United Airlines flight.
The father-of-one told the court he ‘did not intentionally touch the plaintiff at any time during the flight’, adding: ‘It’s not the kind of thing I would expect to do.’
He admitted his wife told him he touched her while he slept, but added: “I have no recollection of it.”
The economics student had taken two sleeping pills and Van Den Bergh, from Hackney, reportedly joked that the pills could render her unconscious.
She woke up with Van Den Bergh touching the middle of her thigh as the movement became “stronger and more deliberate”, jurors heard.
City shopkeeper Robert Van Den Bergh (pictured), 37, allegedly slipped his hand under a blanket to deliberately stroke the passenger’s thigh as he sat next to her in economy class on the United Airlines flight
The father-of-one told the court he ‘did not intentionally touch the complainant at any time during the flight’. He admitted his wife (pictured outside court with his wife) told him he touched her while he slept, but added: ‘I have no recollection of it’
The woman told Isleworth Crown Court the groping lasted for up to two hours during the flight.
The student asked United Airlines cabin crew for help and was offered a middle row seat in economy class because she refused to pay the £220 upgrade fee for move to another class, Isleworth Crown Court heard yesterday.
Van Den Bergh pleaded not guilty to one count of sexual assault on the United Airlines flight to Heathrow between December 31, 2019 and January 1, 2020.
Van Den Bergh was returning to Heathrow after a two-week honeymoon on the island of Maui.
The woman, who cannot be named due to a legal right to anonymity, reported it to airline staff and when the plane landed in London, Van Den Bergh was escorted by police.
His lawyer wife took another flight home from the two-week honeymoon at the end of 2019 because the price of the route he had booked had gone up, so she found another ticket.
They were to land at Heathrow less than an hour apart.
Van Den Bergh, who works as a power and coal analyst according to his LinkedIn profile, told jurors he was “very cramped” in economy class.
“It’s a little too close to the people, I would say,” he said.
A newlywed returning from his honeymoon in Hawaii slipped his hand under a blanket to grope the thigh of a dozing young college student who sat next to him for two hours, a court heard. Pictured: United Airlines plane
He told jurors he spoke to the student, asking her to move her fur coat which was lying on her seat.
They had a “friendly chat” and he told her a “funny” anecdote about his former boss who once took too many sleeping pills and had to be carried off a plane.
She told him she was going to take two sleeping pills because she had taken one before, but it didn’t work.
“She also offered me a pill and I politely declined,” he said.
“I’ve never taken sleeping pills in my life and I wasn’t going to start taking them.”
Smartly dressed in a navy blue pinstripe suit, light blue shirt and patterned tie, Van Den Bergh told the court he had not had any alcohol during the flight.
“I think I did it once when I was 14 on a flight and I don’t think it was very enjoyable,” he said.
Van Den Bergh, who lives with his wife and six-month-old daughter in Hackney, east London, said they had discussed where they lived and what they did for a living.
“She mentioned she was studying, but she also works in real estate.
“I explained that I had recently moved to London Fields and she was unfamiliar with the area, which surprised me a bit.”
He said he dozed off during the flight, but found time to watch movies like Zombieland, Chariots of Fire and Mad Max: Fury Road.
The Van Den Bergh lawyer’s wife (pictured) was on a different flight to London – they were due to land at Heathrow within an hour of each other
Van Den Bergh said the woman twice pushed him to wake up when she wanted to use the bathroom because she was sitting on the window seat and he was sitting in the middle.
On the second occasion, he took the opportunity to go to the bathroom and stretch his legs and then waited for her to come back, but she never returned to her seat.
Shortly after, a cabin crew member told him that the woman sitting next to him had “complained about inappropriate touching,” Van Den Bergh said.
‘I was a bit shocked. I have never been accused of touching a woman inappropriately. I can’t imagine that I did something like that. I can only imagine that I got in his way.
He suggested he may have moved in his sleep, adding: ‘My wife often makes fun of me for moving or even fondling her when I sleep. She always says you look so cute when you do that.
However, he insisted that even that was unlikely: “It’s not something I would expect to do in a strange environment in my sleep.”
After landing at Heathrow, officers boarded the plane, shouted his name and then escorted him off the plane.
“I realized that two hours in it was probably what he was doing on purpose and I put an airplane pillow between us,” the woman told the jury.
“The pressure increased over time and moved to where my underwear was. He stopped for a few seconds and started off again.
She was wearing a skirt and had a blanket over her. “It was under the blanket. It was the man sitting next to me.
“It started in the middle of my thigh, but moved for an hour and a half to two hours.” I was too scared to look and was stuck in the seat and didn’t know what to do.
Prosecutor Sophia Kerridge told the jury that the flight took off from Los Angeles a few hours before midnight on New Year’s Eve and the plaintiff was seated by the window.
“To his left was this defendant, who was returning from his honeymoon and next to him was another woman in the island seat.
“At the start of the flight, he had a little chat with the complainant and saw her take some sleeping pills and noticed that it could lead to loss of consciousness.
“She woke up four to five hours before the flight was scheduled to land and noticed something lightly touching her thigh.
“She pretended to be asleep, but saw him as the accused stroked her and the strokes became stronger and more deliberate.
“She put a pillow between the seats hoping that would stop things.
The student asked United Airlines cabin crew for help and was offered a middle row seat in economy class because she refused to pay the £220 upgrade fee for move to another class, Isleworth Crown Court (pictured) told.
“He put his hand under the pillow and continued to touch his left thigh and continued to his buttock.
“She asked to stand up and spoke to the cabin crew and asked to be moved because she was uncomfortable sitting next to the accused as he touched her.”
A member of the cabin crew told the jury that the young woman had been offered a seat in the middle of the row in economy class and asked: “Don’t you have something in another class?”
She refused to pay the $300 upgrade fee and was seated elsewhere in economy class.
Van Den Bergh said two armed officers boarded the plane and escorted him ahead of all the other passengers and held him on the jetway as they disembarked ahead of him.
The passenger seated to the left of Van Den Bergh, retired pastor Margaret Yun, was asked if she had observed any groping.
‘I think I would have. Slight movements that I wouldn’t have. If there had been a jerky movement that caught my attention, I would have seen it.
She told the court that the young woman confided in her and said: “Did you see what he did?” He groped me. I’ll tell someone and get another seat.
Van Den Bergh was questioned by Heathrow Police, who told him of the groping allegation. “It’s shocking,” he told them. “I can say one hundred percent that when I was awake, I didn’t do that.”
He told the allegation to the police and his arrest was “pretty shocking”, adding: “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry”.
Van Den Bergh’s wife is expected to testify on his behalf and the jury will hear fifteen character references from the defense.
The analyst moved to London in 2017 after working in Geneva and Brussels for the same company.
Van Den Bergh denies being sexually assaulted on the Los Angeles-Heathrow flight between December 31, 2019 and January 1, 2020.
When questioned by police, he insisted he only slept and watched movies during the flight.
He appeared in court accompanied by his wife.
The trial continues.