PITTSBURGH, Pa. - A man who claims his girlfriend once had a "physical relationship" with retired Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward was in custody Friday on charges he tried to extort US$15,000 from the player by threatening to release evidence the player had paid for sex.
Joshua Van Auker, 26, of Pittsburgh, awaited arraignment on two felony counts of attempted extortion.
Van Auker was arrested Thursday by detectives from the Allegheny County district attorney's office after he allegedly met with Ward's personal assistant, Raymond Burgess, who paid him the money in exchange for unspecified "materials" in an envelope that Van Auker said could prove his claims, according to a criminal complaint. Detectives monitoring that exchange then arrested Van Auker but have not said what was in the envelope.
Online court records don't list an lawyer for Van Auker.
A spokesman for Ward, Andrew Ree, called the alleged extortion attempt "the act of a desperate individual trying to get money from a celebrity."
Ward, who was travelling Friday and unavailable for comment, did not even know about any extortion attempt until Thursday and "played no part in anything," Ree said.
According to the complaint, Burgess contacted the prosecutor's office on Wednesday to say he had gotten a text message from Van Auker containing the extortion message.
If payment was not made, the message said, Van Auker planned to sell or release materials alleging Ward paid women for sex, thereby exposing him to "ridicule or contempt," according to the complaint.
Burgess told investigators Van Auker decided to make the demands after learning his girlfriend "had been involved in a prior physical relationship with Ward," the complaint said.
The woman is not identified in the complaint. One of two charges against Van Auker says he "threatened to publicly accuse the victim of soliciting prostitutes."
After contacting investigators, Burgess again spoke with Van Auker, who allegedly repeated the extortion demand by saying, "It's called buying silence, brother," the complaint said.
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.
Ward has parlayed that success into a second career as a pre-game commentator and reporter with NBC Sports, and had also appeared on ABC's "Dancing With The Stars," while still a player.
Ward, whose father is black and mother is Korean, has also worked to raise awareness about discrimination that mixed-race children face in the United States and his mother's native country.