PITTSBURGH (AP) — A preliminary hearing for a man charged with trying to extort $15,000 from former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward was postponed Tuesday until Dec. 3 at the request of his attorney.
Defense attorney David Shrager said he needed more time to investigate the charges against Joshua Van Auker, 26, of Pittsburgh, along with the evidence. He struck a conciliatory tone when he addressed reporters after a brief court appearance, describing his client as naive and inexperienced.
"This is surreal for him, this is a nice young man," Shrager said of his client, who is accused of contacting Ward's personal assistant last week and threatening to go public with information that Ward had paid prostitutes for sex.
"Hines Ward's an essential part of Pittsburgh history ... he's a great guy," Shrager said.
Ward's assistant, Raymond Burgess, contacted authorities after Van Auker text messaged him, claiming to have the 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 is not identified in the complaint. 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.
A person familiar with the investigation said Van Auker was apparently jealous of the woman's past contact with Ward, but the paperwork Van Auker turned over didn't prove his claims. The person spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because the evidence has not yet been made public.
The detectives, who were watching that transaction, then 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, on Tuesday referred to his comments last week that the alleged extortion was "the act of a desperate individual trying to get money from a celebrity."
Asked for comment after his arrest last week, Van Auker told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review he'd grant an interview "for a price."
On Tuesday, Van Auker stood silently while his defense attorney, hired over the weekend, attempted to explain how Van Auker got himself into this situation.
"Certainly, he's inexperienced. And I think he would answer for himself — which he's not going to today — he certainly wouldn't want to be in the situation he's in right now," Shrager said.
Shrager said he requested the delay of the preliminary hearing so he can review evidence, including records of the purported text message exchange between Van Auker and Burgess.
A district judge must determine at the hearing whether enough probable cause exists for Van Auker to stand trial on two counts of attempted extortion.
A county prosecutor declined to comment.
Ward, 36, retired in March 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. He's now a commentator for NBC Sports.
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