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Man accused of threatening cops during Van Dyke trial pleads guilty to misdemeanor

Matthew Ross faces a maximum of one year in prison after admitting to the charge, though he’s more likely to face six months at most, according to his 15-page plea agreement.

Cook County’s Leighton Criminal Court building. 
Sun-Times file

A Chicago man earlier charged with threatening police officers’ wives and children during the 2018 trial of then-Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke pleaded guilty Wednesday to attempting to obstruct the free exercise of religious beliefs.

Matthew Ross faces a maximum of one year in prison after admitting to the misdemeanor charge, though he’s more likely to face six months at most, according to his 15-page plea agreement.

Ross’ sentencing hearing is set for Dec. 14.

The charge Ross pleaded guilty to is based on a Sept. 20, 2018, comment Ross wrote on Facebook, court records show. Prosecutors said he wrote, “AFTER THEY LET VAN DYKE GO, BURN ALL THE CHURCHES OF THE PASTORS” who went to a press conference. He added, “FREE YOUR SOUL!!!”

In his plea agreement, Ross acknowledged that he “knowingly attempted to obstruct the exercise of religious beliefs of pastors and churchgoers who attended that press conference,” and that he “knew that the communication would be understood as a threat.”

However, Ross also admitted in the document that he made threats against Chicago police officers and their families through his Facebook account. It points to comments Ross wrote on Oct. 2, 2018, including, “ON MY LIFE, IF THEY LET VAN DYKE OFF AFTER THIS WEAK [A—] TESTIMONY, I’M BEATIN ALL COP KIDS [A—], ON SIGHT!! FREE YOUR SOUL!!!”; “MT. GREENWOOD, MIDWAY, ALL COP NEIGHBORHOODS, WE BEATIN YA’LL KIDS & WIVES [A—] IF VAN DYKE GETS OFF!! FREE YOUR SOUL!!!”; “JUST SHOOT UP THE WHOLE COURTROOM!! FREE YOUR SOUL!!!”; and “EVERY ALDERMAN’S OFFICE SHOULD BE BURNED TO THE GROUND!! FREE YOUR SOUL!!!”

Ross originally faced charges in state court in connection with the threats, but a federal grand jury handed up an indictment against him in January 2019, three months after the conclusion of Van Dyke’s trial.

After charges were filed against him in state court, Ross told the Chicago Sun-Times he regretted posting the messages and didn’t expect them to reach an audience beyond his own network.

“It was posted in the heat of the moment just going back and forth with that community,” Ross said in 2018 of his online sparring with Van Dyke’s supporters. “They’ve been posting threats to activists as well. I’ve gotten death threats.”

A jury convicted Van Dyke in October 2018 of the second-degree murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan later sentenced Van Dyke to nearly seven years in prison, though Van Dyke was expected to serve a little more than three years.