GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN – James Verne Russell, 50, a former Michigan teacher and principal, was sentenced to serve 720 months in the Federal Bureau of Prisons for sexual exploitation of two minors. U.S. District Judge Janet T. Neff also imposed lifetime-supervised release should it be necessary. Russell was also sentenced on October 8, 2020 by Muskegon County Circuit Court Judge Annette R. Smedley to 20 to 95 years in the related sexual assault case.
In sentencing Russell to serve 60 years in prison, Judge Neff stated the offense “is about as serious as it gets” because of the extended length of time and “circumstances in which you took advantage of children.” Judge Neff commented that in her thirty-two years as a judge “you think you’ve seen it all” and then “something like this happens.” “You come face-to-face with a human being whose behavior you just can’t understand.” “How you can take a little boy from an awful situation” and “take what little he has away from him.” “There are very few cases that will stick out to me after all these years, but yours will. I promise you.”
Russell was in education for twenty-two years. He was an elementary school teacher for sixteen years and an elementary school principal for six years in the Ravenna and North Muskegon School Districts. In June 2018, a teacher filed a complaint about Russell’s unusual interest in two students. Russell was suspended by the school district and later resigned. He then moved to Las Vegas and joined the Clark County School District as a fourth grade teacher. Russell came to the attention of law enforcement, in March 2019, when the FBI Las Vegas Child Exploitation Task Force received a CyberTip from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children regarding a recent upload of dozens of images, some depicting child pornography. When confronted by investigators from the FBI Las Vegas and Henderson Police Department, Russell confessed to possessing the pictures. Norton Shores Police and FBI Grand Rapids located and interviewed the victim in Michigan. The victim, identified as Victim 1 in the charges, confirmed that he was the child depicted and that Russell had sexually molested him for years. A search of Russell’s cell phone and computers disclosed numerous other images of child pornography, many of which Russell had produced himself. Further investigation disclosed another boy, identified as Victim 2, who was victimized in 2017, and a third individual who had been sexually abused by Russell beginning in 1996.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office brought federal charges against Russell for the production, transportation, and possession of child pornography. The Muskegon County Prosecutor’s Office charged Russell for the sexual assaults of Victim 1. As part of a joint resolution, Russell pleaded guilty to a sexual assault charge in Muskegon County, and pleaded guilty to two counts of production of child pornography in federal court.
Russell started his career in education in 1996. That same year, he began grooming and sexually assaulting his first victim. Russell volunteered to work with children in many capacities, including as a long-term guardian, babysitter, elementary and middle school basketball coach, lifeguard, camp counselor, and youth ministries assistant at various churches. In its sentencing memorandum, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said, “Russell’s conduct is not one of opportunity or an isolated aberration. His was a deliberate and dedicated career of manipulation and sexual abuse.”
In announcing the sentence, U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge stated, “Russell’s conduct is an abomination. He worked and volunteered his way into the lives of our children, not as a service to our community, but as a means to identify, target, and sexually exploit vulnerable children. Those who are in a position of trust and sexually abuse children will be held accountable. There is no parole in the federal system. Russell will spend the rest of his life in prison and will never have the chance to molest another child.”
“The FBI is committed to working alongside our law enforcement partners to protect children from being exploited by people like Mr. Russell,” said David G. Nanz, Acting Special Agent in charge of the FBI in Michigan. “He used positions of trust to gain access to vulnerable children, abuse them and record the abuse for his own perverse pleasure. His actions were reprehensible and represent the worst betrayal of innocence and trust imaginable.”
This case is part of Project Safe Childhood, a nationwide initiative designed to protect children from online exploitation and abuse. The U.S. Attorney’s Office, county prosecutor’s offices, the Internet Crimes Against Children task force (ICAC), federal, state, tribal, and local law enforcement are working closely together to locate, apprehend, and prosecute individuals who exploit children. The partners in Project Safe Childhood work to educate local communities about the dangers of online child exploitation, and to teach children how to protect themselves. For more information about Project Safe Childhood, please visit the following web site: www.projectsafechildhood.gov. Individuals with information or concerns about possible child exploitation should contact local law enforcement officials.
This case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Daniel Mekaru and Austin Hakes, in cooperation with the Muskegon County Prosecutor’s Office, and investigated by Henderson (Nevada) Police Department, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, Norton Shores Police Department, FBI in Las Vegas, and WEBCHEX – “West Michigan Based Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking Task Force,” a partnership of FBI, Michigan State Police, and local agencies dedicated to investigating offenses against children.