Hempfield man gets time served for threatening messages directed at church, pastor
A Hempfield man pleaded guilty Friday to harassment charges in connection with a series of racially-tinged phone messages left for an African-American pastor.
Mark Eugene Ray, 59, was accused of leaving threatening messages and racial slurs directed at members and the pastor of Living Word Congregational Church in Penn Township. He first was arrested in 2017 and was ordered to stop contacting the church.
In a second case filed in May, police said Ray — while awaiting trial for the first set of charges — left four voicemails May 14-15 directed at the church’s pastor.
Common Pleas Court Judge Rita Hathaway sentenced Ray to serve up to 12 months in jail but paroled him Friday after giving him credit for the two months he has already served behind bars.
Prosecutors dismissed more serious charges of ethnic intimidation against Ray.
“He served two months in jail for making telephone calls. If that doesn’t get the point across, I don’t know what will,” said Assistant District Attorney Adam Barr.
Ray agreed to plead guilty to one harassment charge for the first charge filed against him in 2017 and four additional harassment counts based on the May calls.
He also pleaded guilty to a count of flight to avoid apprehension, a charge filed after police said he fled from his home as during an attempt to arrest him in late May. He was captured 1o days later in East Pittsburgh. Hathaway said Ray’s one-year jail sentence for that offense would run concurrent to the other cases, meaning he received no additional jail time.
No members of the church were present at the hearing.
Ray told the judge he accepted the deal because it was in his best interest to do so. “Thank you for letting me out,” Ray told the judge.
Defense attorney Tim Dawson said Ray’s calls were prompted by a religious dispute with the pastor and were not racially motivated.
“It was a matter of a strong difference of opinion on a religious issue and how the church was being operated. There was no ethnic intimidation intended by him,” Dawson said. “He was adamant about his First Amendment rights, but he now wants to put this behind him.”
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .