Pastor resigns, exotic dancer arrested in extortion case
It started three years ago with a $100 dance. It became an affair that ended with a Valley City, N.D., pastor's resignation and the Moorhead dancer's arrest on extortion charges.
There was no touching allowed the first time Bunny Annette Byington, 46, danced nude for 30 minutes in front of the Rev. Mark S. Ostgarden, according to the version of events he gave police.
Ostgarden, who is 52 and previously served a church in Hatton, N.D., found Byington through a classified ad in The Forum. He began contacting her every few months for another appointment, paying a little extra so Byington would allow him to touch her.
As time went on, he began paying $200 each time he had sex with her.
In March, Byington told him he no longer had to pay her and to consider their relationship an affair.
They saw each other every week until May 14, when Byington began demanding money to keep quiet.
The demands came after Byington stated she was pregnant, then later said she had lost the baby. She originally said she could not become pregnant.
That's the story court documents spell out based on what the pastor told police after resigning June 5 from his associate pastor position at Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Valley City.
Byington is charged in Clay County District Court with three felonies accusing her of coercion or attempted coercion by extorting $7,000 from Ostgarden. Such charges are rare, according to a search of Forum archives.
Court documents state:
Byington, 46, made her first demand May 14 in an instant message to Ostgarden, telling him, "You deceived me, you gained my trust, you let me fall in love with you ... and you even made me question my faith in God."
She wrote him to slide $6,000 under her door and, "if it's not there, then I take so much more from you," she wrote.
Ostgarden, 52, paid $5,000 the next day and another $1,000 on May 18.
On May 19, Byington text-messaged Ostgarden to say she was going to meet his wife. A week later, she said she planned to go to Valley City and stop by his church. Neither event happened, Ostgarden said.
On May 29, she asked for another $3,000 but agreed on $1,000, which Ostgarden paid the next day.
Byington demanded an additional $18,000 on June 5, saying she had contacted an attorney who told her that would be a reasonable settlement. When Ostgarden said he could not come up with more money, Byington contacted his wife, his senior pastor and an assistant to the Lutheran bishop.
She had been in contact with Bishop Bill Rindy of the eastern North Dakota synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for more than a week before revealing Ostgarden's name, the bishop said Tuesday. She had also sent him a photograph of Ostgarden lying on a bed wearing only underwear and a T-shirt, court documents state.
"I'd spoken with her on several occasions, but she declined to give me the name until I think it was Friday, June 5," Rindy said, adding that Byington initially told him she was involved with a married pastor.
Rindy set up a meeting with Ostgarden, who resigned that day. If Ostgarden had not willingly resigned, Rindy said he would have asked for a resignation.
"The relationship was not appropriate for a member of the [ELCA]," Rindy said, adding that it was a good thing Byington came forward about the relationship. "We're not into secrecy, and we do have high standards for our pastors."
Ostgarden's congregation was notified of his resignation the following Sunday and a letter to the roughly 1,300 members was sent out that week, according to the Rev. Randy Schlecht, senior pastor at the church.
"He served very well and very faithfully at that church for about 10 years, so, of course, there was a lot of pain and hurt because they love their pastor," Rindy said.
The letter stated that Ostgarden was involved in an inappropriate sexual relationship with an adult female, Rindy said. It was sent to dispel rumors.
Ostgarden's future with the church will be decided at a September synod council meeting. The council will decide if he should be kept off the clergy roster for a minimum of five years, Rindy said.
He said Ostgarden, who was ordained in 1990, is not allowed to start at a new church until a decision is made.
Attempts to contact Ostgarden on Tuesday were unsuccessful. His wife said he was out of the area and was told not to comment.
Byington, who is free on $500 cash bail, said Tuesday that her attorney has advised her not to comment.
She owes more than $11,000 in child support as of July, according to the North Dakota Department of Human Services.
Clay County Attorney Brian Melton said prostitution or solicitation charges are not pending against Ostgarden or Byington.
"There is no other corroborating evidence other than the statements that have been made to this point," Melton said.
Moorhead police Lt. Tory Jacobson said the department is investigating the possibility Byington may have extorted other clients. It is often a difficult crime for people to report because they are usually being threatened about something they want to keep secret, such as their identity, Jacobson said.
Ostgarden gave police documentation detailing the withdrawals and loans he made to obtain the money to pay Byington. He also recorded one of the payments using the video function on his cell phone.