Pittsburgh man gets probation in Hines Ward threat

By JOE MANDAK - Associated Press
    2013-04-26 12:30

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.

The Associated Press could not immediately reach 26-year-old Joshua Van Auker for comment Friday on his guilty plea, which was entered with little fanfare Tuesday before an Allegheny County judge.

The attorney who represented Van Auker after his arrest last year, David Shrager, told the AP he had no part in the plea bargain, even though court records continued to list him as the defense attorney. Shrager believes the county public defender took over the case, but officials there didn't immediately return a call to confirm that.

Those same court records show Van Auker plead guilty to a lesser version of the original charge of attempted theft by threatening to expose a secret.

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 Allegheny 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. A district attorney's spokesman didn't immediately comment Friday.

Whatever the case, after contacting investigators, Burgess again spoke with Van Auker, who repeated the extortion demand by saying, ``It's called buying silence, brother,'' the complaint said. Detectives who were watching that transaction in October arrested Van Auker.

Burgess has said the envelope contained only papers, not pictures, but has declined to otherwise describe its contents. Ward's manager, Andrew Ree, said then that 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.

Van Auker didn't comment on the charges after his initial court appearance and on Friday didn't answer a cellphone number 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.

Although he didn't represent Van Auker by the time he pleaded guilty, Shrager told the AP he thought prosecutors ``kind of gave the kid a good deal.''

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 then.

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.