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Former youth pastor sentenced to 10 years in prison for having sex with child

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Pedro Oliveira Jr.
June 26, 2009
— A former youth pastor was sentenced Thursday to 10 years in prison on charges of sexually assaulting a child in the mid-1970s.

Russell J. Lesser, 64, of Bryson City, N.C., pleaded guilty April 14 to a felony charge of sexual intercourse with a child younger than 16. Two others charges were dismissed but read in.


During his sentencing Thursday, Lesser asked for the court’s mercy and apologized to victim Laurie Asplund.


“I’d like to take that one year out of my life,” Lesser said.


“I’m so deeply sorry for it.”


The former pastor began his advances during a trust game, Asplund said, but then sexually assaulted her more than 40 times from summer 1974 to spring 1976. She was 14 to 16 years old.


Asplund said in an April interview with the Gazette that she wants other sexual assault victims to hear her story and know her name.


Poorly advised in the 1980s, Asplund believed the statute of limitations had expired on her case. She thought she'd had only six years from the time of the offense to file charges against her assaulter.


Asplund first realized she could pursue the case after hearing about the Rev. Donald McGuire, a Jesuit priest convicted in Walworth County in 2006 of molesting two boys in the 1960s.


The case fell under an exception of the statute limitations because Lesser moved soon after the assault from Wisconsin to Indiana and then to North Carolina.


Asplund said she will never be the same after what happened. She gave Judge James Carlson a photo from her eighth grade graduation. In the picture, she is looking up at her grandfather.


“I’m not the same person, sitting here today, as I was that day,” she said of the photo.


Walworth County District Attorney Philip Koss called Lesser a master of manipulation and deception, and accused him of abusing his power in a position of trust.


“He is well liked and respected by many people,” Koss said. “Those are common traits in sex offenders.”


Defense attorney Stephen Kramer said the case was one of the most troubling and difficult he has taken in Walworth County. He said Lesser “screwed up big time” 35 years ago but has since been a changed, more mature man.


Carlson said Lesser is unlikely to re-offend and does not pose a threat to society. But he said Lesser took the time to plan the crime and should be punished accordingly.


“Given the serious nature of this offense, it would seriously depreciate the offense to not sentence the defendant,” Carlson said.


Lesser was taken into custody after his Thursday morning sentencing.



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