Former Walworth County Youth Pastor Denies Sexual Abuse Charges

By Ted Sullivan
Janesville Gazette

August 28, 2008

ELKHORN — A Lake Geneva teen attended youth group in the 1970s to learn about God and Christianity, but she claims a counselor had sex with her after playing a “trust” game.

The woman, now 49, for the first time Wednesday confronted the man accused of assaulting her, pointing toward him in Walworth County Court, saying he had sex with her 34 years ago when she was 15 and 16.

“It happened multiple times,” she testified during a preliminary hearing.

Russell J. Lesser, 63, Bryson City, N.C., is accused of having sex with the woman 40 to 60 times, including one time at his house on the girl’s prom night, according to the criminal complaint.

The former Youth for Christ Campus Life minister is charged with two felony counts of sexual intercourse with a child and felony indecent behavior with a child.

Judge John Race found probable cause to support the charges and bound Lesser over for trial.

Lesser pleaded not guilty later Wednesday afternoon.

According to the criminal complaint, the woman told police she was sexually assaulted by a counselor from the summer of 1974 to the spring of 1976 while attending youth group.

The counselor began touching her inappropriately as part of a “trust” game, according to the criminal complaint, and months later the game led to sex.

They had intercourse at the counselor’s home when his wife was gone and other places, according to the criminal complaint. The counselor and his wife later divorced.

The girl and her parents confronted the counselor, but he denied any wrongdoing, according to the criminal compliant.

At the time, the teen denied anything inappropriate, according to the criminal complaint.

The counselor was fired, and he later moved to Indiana in the spring of 1976. The girl disclosed the sexual abuse to her parents a year later, according to the criminal complaint.

A Walworth County Sheriff’s detective began investigating in 2006 after speaking with an attorney who represented the girl and her family in the 1970s, according to the criminal complaint.

A detective spoke with the woman’s parents in May, and a warrant for Lesser’s arrest was issued July 11.

The Walworth County prosecutors believe the statute of limitations has not expired because Lesser has not lived in Wisconsin since the alleged offenses occurred.

If convicted, Lesser faces up to 30 years in prison. He remains free on $25,000 signature bond and $2,500 cash bond.


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