PITTSBURGH (AP) — A man who pleaded guilty to trying to extort $15,000 from former Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward will spend two years on probation.
Joshua Van Auker, 26, pleaded guilty Tuesday in front of an Allegheny County judge to a lesser version of the original charge of attempted theft by threatening to expose a secret, court records showed.
Ward’s assistant, Raymond Burgess, contacted authorities last fall after Van Auker sent him a text message claiming to have damaging information. Detectives with the county district attorney’s office investigated and determined that Van Auker decided to make the demands after learning his girlfriend “had been involved in a prior physical relationship with Ward,” according to a criminal complaint.
The woman was not identified in the complaint, and authorities never described the information Van Auker claimed to have or said whether it was even true.
Burgess went to investigators, the complaint said, and afterward spoke again with Van Auker, who repeated the extortion demand by saying, “It’s called buying silence, brother.” Detectives watching that encounter in October arrested Van Auker.
Burgess has said an envelope Van Auker gave him purporting to contain the damaging information contained only papers, not pictures, but Burgess has declined to otherwise describe its contents. Ward’s manager, Andrew Ree, has said the extortion attempt was “the act of a desperate individual trying to get money from a celebrity.” Ree didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
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Van Auker didn’t answer a cellphone number Friday used to contact him last year. The man who answered the phone said he had loaned Van Auker the phone last year but doesn’t currently know how to reach him.
The attorney who represented Van Auker after his arrest last year, David Shrager, said he had no part in the plea bargain. He said he thought prosecutors “gave the kid a good deal.”
Prosecutors did not object to the probationary sentence, said Mike Manko, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office. Van Auker was “very cooperative” during the case, Manko said, adding that Ward and his attorney agreed with how the case was handled.
When Van Auker was arrested, Shrager described his client as “naive and inexperienced” and apologized that Ward’s name was dragged through the mud.
“Hines Ward’s an essential part of Pittsburgh history. … He’s a great guy,” Shrager said at the time.
Ward, 36, retired last year after 14 seasons with the Steelers. He had 1,000 catches for 12,021 yards, both franchise records, and was MVP of the Super Bowl XL, which the Steelers won in 2006.
Ward is now a commentator for NBC Sports and continues to be a marketable presence in Pittsburgh, where he has owned businesses and still appears on television commercials.