Gladstone parents seek return of son from Russian prison
Musician facing 'inhumane' punishment in solitary confinement
By CHARLIE ZAVALICK Staff Writer
Former Peapack-Gladstone resident James Vincent Wilgus, 51, a multi-talented musician who as a young man performed and taught throughout the area, has spent all of the 2021 locked in solitary confinement in a Russian prison.
Known as “Jimmy,’’ the 1987 Bernards High School graduate has been in jail on three charges of indecent exposure since the day before Donald Trump won the 2016 Presidential election. His sentence calls for another eight years.
Back home in Gladstone, his aging parents, James L. and Bella Wilgus, have been working feverishly ever since to bring him back to America, fearing they may never see their only son alive again.
They claim Jimmy has been the victim of exaggerated charges, inadequate legal representation, a bogus trial in a corrupt foreign judicial system, extortion and ongoing inhumane punishment.
Jimmy and other Americans held in Russia are being used as bargaining chips to secure the release of Russians held in the United States, they claim. In addition to harassment, intimidation and outright violence, he is being held in a unsanitary conditions with limited access to medical care during a worldwide pandemic.
In a recently recorded audio message that Jimmy says is in the “public domain,’’ he pleas for help for himself and fellow Americans Paul Whalen and Thomas Stwalley who are also held in a labor camp in the remote Russian Republic of Mordovia.
“The administration of Colony 17 must be thoroughly investigated,’’ Jimmy Wilgus said. “Between August and November of 2020, my lawyer had been requesting several documents which the administration refused to produce, regardless of my legal right to obtain these simple documents. Since then my lawyer has been threatened, my wife faces being falsely accused of a serious crime she could obviously could never commit, the American Embassy has been disrespected.
“I have been threatened, falsely accused, suffered extreme human rights abuses, denied legal rights and psychologically tortured,’’ he continues. “This administration’s inhumane and criminal treatment of an American citizen and family is carelessly provoking an onslaught of media attention that could unnecessarily complicate diplomatic relations between Russia and the United States.’’
‘Bogus’ Drug Charges
Jimmy has been locked in solitary confinement since Dec. 4, his birthday, when he was charged with receiving illegal drugs in mail supposedly sent by his wife.
She had sent him two packages, one for his birthday, the other for Christmas. The drugs were found by police in a third package he says was sent from a different postal zone.
Calling it an obvious set up, his father said “it appears the warden’s goal is to keep him in prison for life.’’
Last week, in another audio recording made by his current attorney, Andrei Vikanov, Jimmy shared the “good news’’ that those charges would be dropped on Feb. 28.
But he fears he’ll remain in solitary, and that Russian authorities will fabricate new charges to keep him there.
“The bad news is I’m still here and they’re probably going to to keep me in solitary confinement and punish me and nothing is going to change,’’ he said. “And I will be in danger here and they’ll probably try to frame me for something else immediately.’’
James L. Wilgus, 84, says he works several hours seven days a week writing letters and emails to U.S. officials and dignitaries seeking a transfer or prisoner exchange for his son.
His requests are often ignored or shuffled off to other agencies, he claims.
Over the years James Wilgus has sent dozens of letters to U.S. Senators, Congressmen, several Secretaries of State – even to
Russian President Vladimir Putin himself – all to no avail.
“They refer things to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and that’s where it ends,’’ Wilgus said.
Correspondence to former Secretaries of State Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo in the Trump Administration never drew a response, he said. Similarly, he said letters to Democratic U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez were ignored.
Copies of all those letters, and many more, were shared with this newspaper.
On Feb. 5, James Wilgus wrote to Antony Blinken, the new Secretary of State under President Joseph Biden, saying at the time that Jimmy had been in solitary confinement for more than 60 days.
“This is illegal even under Russian law so the guards take him out for a few minutes every 10 or 15 days and put him back in on new bogus charges,’’ he wrote. “He must be on his feet 16 hours/day in a closet. He is afraid to eat for fear of poisoning. He has lost 30 pounds. I am very concerned for his mental and physical health as well as his life.’’
Wilgus told Blinken that the matter “has been brought to the attention of the Trump Administration many times’’ and he “never even got a reply.
“Hopefully you will take a more compassionate and reasonable approach to this problem and make something happen,’’ he said.
Wilgus also wrote on Sept. 16, 2020, to Rep. Thomas Malinowski, D-7, who represents the Somerset Hills area in Congress. He inquired about the prospect of including Jimmy in “ongoing discussions’’ for the exchange of American prisoners with Russian prisoners being held here in the United States.
Malinowski’s office declined a request from the newspaper for an interview, but sent a statement from the Congressman.
“I want to make sure every one of my constituents is treated fairly and humanely abroad, and I’d be concerned about any American, no matter what the circumstances, held for years in a Russian labor camp,” he wrote. “I will continue to work with the U.S. Embassy in Moscow regarding Jimmy’s request for a transfer so he can serve out his time closer to his family.”
A former representative of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow who has worked with the Wilgus family for years declined to discuss the specifics of the case on the record with this newspaper, but also shared a written statement of support for the family.
“I have always been impressed by the devotion James and Bella Wilgus have for their son’s well being and the unconditional love they have for him,’’ said Richard Hanrahan, retired chief of American Citizen Services (ACS) in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
“I’ve been in touch with them after I retired from the Foreign Service and consider them friends.
“Recently James Wilgus told me Jimmy was placed in solitary confinement and is being investigated for drug charges that seem dubious at best. I trust that my former colleagues at the U.S. Embassy will continue to do their best to ensure that any U.S. citizens incarcerated in Russia are treated humanely and fairly by prison officials and by the Russian legal system.
“No American should suffer abuse at the hands of a foreign government.’’
Despite some periodically promising developments, James Wilgus has been frustrated most every step of the way. But he continues working every lead he can develop.
“He’s my son,’’ he said. “I’ve got to keep him alive. That’s the first thing, just keep him alive over there.’’
In the process, the Wilgus family has been scammed out of thousand of dollars by profiteering Russian lawyers and is exhausting its financial resources.
“We’re trying to sell our house,’’ he said. “This is digging into our savings. We’ve got to make a move unfortunately.’’
They have lived in Gladstone for more than 40 years.
The nightmare began on Nov. 7, 2016, when Jimmy Wilgus was forcefully arrested near his apartment in Moscow.
According to a written synopsis of events prepared by his father for this article, Jimmy was grabbed, kicked, punched and pushed down a set of stairs while being arrested. The charges, he claims, were unjustly exaggerated under Russian law, and the subsequent trial and legal proceedings a farce.
A professional musician who had taught himself piano as a child and then drums, Jimmy had formed a band called WICKED MONKEY along with talented Russian guitarist Yury Nikolaev, who encouraged him to visit Russia and tour overseas.
They played hard rock before large crowds in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, with Wilgus the front man on vocals and drums.
Wilgus eventually fell in love with a Russian woman named Elena. They were married in 2014 and lived in Moscow, where he developed a career as a freelance composer, scoring motion pictures, a TV series, performing and teaching music to Russian students. He became partners with Russian investors and was working to set up a recording and production studio.
He was also drinking vodka during the day for “artistic motivation,’’ his father said in an interview on Saturday. Feb. 13.
Jimmy had some problems when he was teen-ager, his father said, but quit when he “realized it was making him do crazy things.
“He stopped until he got to Russia,’’ he said. “The guys are always drinking vodka. Once he took a sip, that was it.’’
After his arrest, Jimmy Wilgus was sent to the Serbsky Institute for psychological observation. The diagnosis, his father wrote, was that he was not cognizant of his actions due to “contractive consciousness disorder due to alcoholism.’’
‘’He was not aware of what he was doing,’’ he said. “The alcohol just took over.’’
Under Russian law, he said, the charge of indecent exposure is graduated to rape and sexual assault if it involves a child under age 14, which Wilgus said, one of the incidents did.
He hired an attorney to defend his son but the case – held entirely in the Russian language – was “sabotaged’’ as the attorney never challenged “erroneous accusations’’ and a hired interpreter was not allowed to speak.
He said that even though the three girls involved testified that they were never touched or approached by Jimmy, the judge applied the article of sexual assault and imposed a 12.5-year sentence.
“The whole fiasco was a set up,’’ James Wilgus wrote in a July 2020 letter to then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “The trials were in Russian and my son never knew what was going on until his interpreter explained what transpired after the verdict of guilty.’’
The attorney also scammed the Wilgus family of $5,000 by making unfulfilled promises of payments to the victims to help facilitate Jimmy’s release, and then disappeared.
Jimmy Wilgus was subsequently driven 10 hours away from Moscow to a labor camp in the Mordovia, where he was assigned to a sewing factory making uniforms and then masks during the pandemic.
James Wilgus said his son has continuously endured physical and verbal abuse while working in slave labor conditions, often receiving little or no pay.
The arrest, he said was all over the newspapers and television because of Jimmy’s celebrity status.
“You have to know that Jimmy was becoming very popular,’’ he said. “He was on a lot of TV shows, concerts, all broadcast live on TV, so they all knew about him and his band. So when this hit, it was big news. A very famous American. We got him.’’
“He’s getting abused for it. It’s just been a nightmare for him.’’
In 2018, James Wilgus hired Andrei Vikanov, a local attorney, to represent Jimmy and visit him once a month.
“He goes and visits Jimmy, listens to what he has to say, and goes to the administration about the abuses,’’ he said. “Sometimes they’ll see him, sometimes they ignore him. Then he’ll write a letter and it will be months until he gets a reply.’’
“He’s been beaten up by many guys,’’ he added. “Since the lawyer goes every month, the beatings are not so bad, not very often. They’re out to get the Americans, even the other prisoners.’’
In the February audio recording made by his lawyer, Jimmy says it was the first time he’d “talked to anybody in three weeks but the wall.’’
In a message to his friends, family and supporters, he still holds out hope for his eventual release.
“The love I have inside of me has grown, for life, for the world, for all of you, like you can’t imagine,’’ he said.
“I can’t wait to get out and see you all, and show you how much I love you.’’
Information and videos on Jimmy Wilgus’ music, career and status is posted online at https://www.therewasnosunset.com/.