Ohio Man Pleads Guilty to Killing Former Priest
Victim, 78, Was Sex Offender

By Cassondra Kirby
Lexington Herald Leader (Kentucky)
September 30, 2005

An Ohio man pleaded guilty yesterday to murdering a former Lexington priest and convicted sex offender.

Jason Anthony Russell, 28, said he hit Joseph Pilger, 78, several times in the head with an ax after he found Pilger masturbating while looking at a photograph of Russell's 6-year-old son, prosecutors said yesterday.

Russell, of Ironton, Ohio, also pleaded guilty to burglary and theft by unlawful taking.

In exchange for the guilty plea, prosecutors did not seek the death penalty but recommended life in prison without parole.

Still, Fayette Circuit Judge Gary Payne could sentence him to death as guidelines allow when burglary and murder are committed together, Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Larson said. Russell's official sentencing will be next month.

The commonwealth typically doesn't take plea agreements in murder cases -- preferring the case to be played out before a jury -- but because Pilger was a convicted child molester, Larson said, he didn't think the jury would be sympathetic.

"Our goal is to protect the public from people who have proven themselves to be pretty violent, and this guy has," Larson said. "It's the kind of sentence we are looking for."

Pilger pleaded guilty in 1995 to sexually abusing three brothers and their cousin in the late 1960s, when he was their pastor in Morganfield in Western Kentucky. The victims were younger than 15 and serving as altar boys at the parish.

Under a plea agreement, Pilger was given five years' probation and underwent counseling.

Early in 2003, Pilger was also named in a sex-abuse lawsuit against the dioceses of Lexington and Covington. Daniel Willett of Florida claimed he was abused by Pilger in 1962 at St. Paul's School in Lexington.

Russell became acquainted with Pilger through the late Earl Bierman, a former priest also convicted of child abuse who was in prison with Russell, according to court documents.

Russell, who served time for committing robbery in Henderson County, moved into Pilger's home on Pleasant Pointe Drive in Lexington after he was released in October 2003. Pilger gave Russell money and helped him find employment.

On Dec. 5, 2003, Pilger's landlord found him dead, with a blood-soaked shirt and sitting in a recliner. He had wounds to the chest and head, according to court documents.

Russell took Pilger's white 1999 Buick Century and fled. He was arrested weeks later in Ohio.

In an interview with police, Russell confessed to killing Pilger, but he originally pleaded not guilty.

Since his arrest, Russell had requested a change of venue, expressed dissatisfaction with his appointed attorney and undergone a psychiatric evaluation -- in which he was found competent to stand trial.

Russell's attorney, Herb West, had reportedly advised Russell against taking the plea, telling him he would receive a lighter sentence in a jury trial.

Russell, who is being held in the Fayette County Detention Center, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Reach Cassondra Kirby at (859) 231-3266 or

CORRECTION-DATE: October 1, 2005


Jason Russell's attorney was incorrectly identified in a story on B1 yesterday. Russell pleaded guilty to murdering former Lexington priest and convicted sex offender Joseph Pilger. Russell's attorney is Gene Lewter.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.