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'The forgotten American' in Russian prison

The Wilgus family calls Jimmy the forgotten American, saying it feels like you never hear about his situation.

MORDOVIA, Russia — Jimmy Wilgus, a musician from New Jersey, was in Russia in 2016 working on a movie soundtrack with a Russian film director when he was ambushed and thrown into a van. 

Jim and Bella Wilgus describe their son as a wonderful, loving and friendly young man.

"Just full of fun," Bella Wilgus said. 

The musician's parents say he was a natural composer who would see a new world open up every time he sat at a piano. 

"It was like, he was reliving a dream or, or something that came to him. And he said, 'I forgot to put this to music.' It was a story," said Jim Wilgus. "Most all of his songs are stories he tells he tells about life, not just his life, but life as he perceives it. It was just a joy."

His parents, Jim and Bella Wilgus, say their son was helping his stepdaughter get into a taxi just moments before he was grabbed. 

"As soon as the cab left, four guys jumped them. He thought he's being kidnapped at first. They grabbed him and threw him in the car and started kicking him and punching him," Jim Wilgus explained. "He couldn't figure out what was going on. He thought for sure he was being kidnapped."

Instead, Jimmy Wilgus was taken to a police station.

Credit: Wilgus family
Jimmy Wilgus singing

Jim Wilgus claims no one at the police station spoke English. He said when they realized his son didn't speak Russian, they agreed to bring in an interpreter. 

The Wilgus family said the interpreter told Jimmy Wilgus he simply needed to sign a paper in order to go home. 

"'You sign this paper, you go home.' That's what he understood," Jim Wilgus said. "So he said, 'alright, I'll sign the paper.' After that, they throw him in a jail holding cell."

His father says it was hours later when they took him home and Jimmy Wilgus thought the nightmare was over, but when they got there, police began searching his apartment. Officers reportedly went through his computer, his cell phone and then confiscated everything he owned before putting the musician back in the car and taking him to a detention center. 

Jim Wilgus said his son was at the detention center for almost 18 months before they charged him with anything.

Credit: Wilgus Family
Jimmy Wilgus in Moscow

The Wilgus family say Jimmy was forced to sign confession papers for a crime he did not commit.

"They charged him with indecent exposure," said Bella Wilgus. 

The family says witnesses testified claiming Jimmy committed a crime in an area of Russia he had never even visited.

Credit: Wilgus family
Jimmy Wilgus in Russian custody

Jimmy Wilgus was sentenced to 12 years in prison after a reportedly closed-door trial, where his mother claims the embassy was not even allowed to attend. 

"When the interpreter tried to explain things to Jimmy what was going on, the judge stopped the interpreter," Bella Wilgus said. "Jimmy never really knew what was going on. I mean, the whole thing is so horrific. It's just a nightmare."

The US State Department tells WUSA9 it is monitoring Jim Wilgus's situation and “continues to press for fair and transparent treatment for all US citizen detainees in Russia.”

Credit: Wilgus family
Jimmy Wilgus' parents, Bella and Jim.

The Russian Embassy in D.C. did not respond to our request for comment.

Wilgus is in prison IK-17 in Mordovia, Russia. According to international reporting, it’s a prison with notoriously harsh conditions.

"My heart is broken constantly," his mother said. "Just to know that he's suffering, and especially since August [2022], when he had a stroke, and he's really very ill and needs help."

The Wilgus family calls Jimmy the forgotten American, saying it feels like you never hear about his situation.

"I mean, thank God that Trevor Reed was out, He was with Jimmy," his mother said. "Paul Whelan is with Jimmy. You never hear about Jimmy. Jimmy is the forgotten American, unfortunately."

The Wilgus family set up a website to further explain Jimmy's story.

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