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Chicago man gets probation for online threats during Jason Van Dyke trial

U.S. District Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer urged Matthew Ross to become part of the solution to the “gnawing problem that we have of lack of peace, and suspicion, and conspiracies and hatred.”

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

A federal judge sentenced a Chicago man to 18 months of probation Thursday after he admitted last year that he made threats on Facebook amid the 2018 trial of then-Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke.

Before he was sentenced by U.S. District Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer, Matthew Ross, 35, made note of the “global pandemic, social unrest and everything” since federal charges were leveled against him in January 2019.

“I have not been in any trouble, you have not heard from me at all, and this would have been the perfect, ideal time for that to happen,” Ross said.

But in handing down her sentence, Pallmeyer said Ross’ online comments “really, really were terrifying” for the people targeted by them. And she said, “if you say something on social media that goes viral, you have no control over it, and you can’t stop the effect that it has.”

Rather than making divisive comments, the judge said, people should “communicate across those lines of division and try to reach out and try to understand.” And as the sentencing hearing ended, Pallmeyer urged Ross to become part of the solution to the “gnawing problem that we have of lack of peace, and suspicion, and conspiracies and hatred.”

Ross pleaded guilty in August to attempting to obstruct the free exercise of religious beliefs, a misdemeanor. The charge was 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,” referring to pastors who went to a news 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 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.