In this March 2014 photo, Gary Ray, then pastor of the Oso Community Chapel, carries chocolate bars as a donation for Oso landslide survivors to serve as “comfort food.” (Jordan Stead, seattlepi.com file)

In this March 2014 photo, Gary Ray, then pastor of the Oso Community Chapel, carries chocolate bars as a donation for Oso landslide survivors to serve as “comfort food.” (Jordan Stead, seattlepi.com file)

‘Appalled’ judge sentences pastor for theft from Oso victims

“God only knows what darkness in (Gary) Ray’s soul has caused him to do these things,” the judge said.

OAK HARBOR — Bodies were still buried beneath the mud of the Oso hillside in May 2014 when pastor Gary Ray funneled $30,000 in cash — donations meant for grieving families of the 43 killed — into a church bank account where only he had access.

“People were still searching for the dead,” said deputy prosecutor Michael Safstrom in court Thursday. “So this is the most glaring contradiction between public words and private deeds. Mr. Ray was the public face of the Oso Community Chapel.”

At the time, nobody but Ray and perhaps God knew that not a dollar would go to the slide victims.

Island County Superior Court Judge Alan Hancock sentenced Ray to 18 months in prison Thursday, for a series of swindles that went on for years, totaling over $152,000 stolen from Oso families, collection plates and his own church congregations in Snohomish and Island counties.

“The court is appalled by Ray’s shameful fraud and theft, his betrayal and abuse of trust,” Hancock said from the bench. “It is almost unprecedented, the level of fraud and abuse that has occurred in the present case. ‘Thou shalt not steal!’ The hypocrisy of a man of the cloth committing these crimes is stunning.”

The Highway 530 landslide swallowed a square mile and an entire neighborhood along the North Fork Stillaguamish River, with no warning, in March 2014. It was the deadliest such slide the United States had ever seen. In media interviews, the Oso pastor became a voice of a devastated, resilient community of survivors. Cash donations flowed in from around the country. A $30,000 check, later stolen by Ray, arrived from a Kirkland church.

Around the same time, Ray founded Restoration Church Camano, as an offshoot of the Oso chapel, secretly using money from the former church to fund the new one, without permission of the congregation. He was ousted from Oso. On Camano Island, he had complete control of the finances, wrote the church bylaws and had no oversight, until the members began to question him in 2017. He presented himself as a humble man of God, playing on the sympathies of his church family by telling them he made only $1,500 a month, said Terry Anderson, who still attends the church.

“One couple in particular felt so sorry for him that periodically they would hand him $1,500 in cash,” she said. “We even gave money to his wife because we felt sorry for this man of God, who was doing so much, and had so little.”

In secret, Ray lined his pockets on Camano for three years.

He used church money to pay his mortgage, to pay off tax debt and to fund the education of his family. A former Restoration Church member who makes a living as a bookkeeper, Dorie Ohlson, helped to expose the fraud. She said Ray used church funds to buy an estimated $10,000 in silver.

“This was never communicated with the church, nor has the church ever seen the paperwork or the silver,” she told the judge Thursday in court. “His reply was, ‘It was sold at a loss.’ If it was sold, where did the money go? It wasn’t sold for less than zero.”

The congregation also collected money to buy the church building, even more than needed for a down payment, only to find out later that Ray pilfered the $9,000 in extra funds, and had also taken out an extra loan on top of that. In the meantime, church members urged Ray to provide financial updates at meetings each month, and he supplied a spreadsheet he’d written up himself, not exported from any kind of financial software. Ohlson came to find out the numbers were made up — often roughly reflecting the collection plate tithes counted by the ushers, but missing other donations, including some money that Ohlson had donated herself.

“As a Christian and a follower of Jesus Christ, I am not angry, nor do I hate Gary Ray,” Ohlson said. “In fact I pray for him, as the Bible instructs. But let me make clear that our God, and the God that Gary Ray preached but did not follow, is not only a God of mercy, grace, love and forgiveness, but also a God of justice.”

In a statement to the judge, Anderson estimated Ray actually stole over $244,000 from his own church just west of Stanwood. By the time he was found out, there was $138 left in the church account — as well as several thousand dollars in debt from an unauthorized loan.

After the betrayal came to light, Anderson said almost half of the church’s 73 members left, never to return, with feelings of “despair, disgust, anger and a lot of self-doubt — like, ‘What was wrong with me? Why didn’t I see this?’”

Ray pleaded guilty in November 2019 to three counts of first-degree theft, each with aggravating factors for abusing a position of trust and causing a “major economic crime.” Ray was an authority figure, not just in a legal or financial sense, but as a moral leader of his community, said Safstrom, the deputy prosecutor.

A sentencing date had been delayed months due to medical issues, including a nine-hour emergency surgery and a staph infection in January, defense attorney Prarie Cloutier said.

Just this week, Ray said, he came up with the last of the funds to pay restitution. He arrived at Island County Superior Court with a $82,872 check — money inherited from his parents — to settle about half of the debt. The other half was covered by refinancing his home in Snohomish County. The Kirkland church would like to see the money go to its original purpose, to help the people of Oso, the prosecutor said.

Ray apologized in court.

“I can say without reservation that my intention was not malicious,” Ray told the judge. “My whole family has a great desire to serve communities and serve churches, and we’ve done that since 1982. It’s not just what we did, it’s who we are. And that is no more. It’s hard to express what that is like, to lose your love, not just a 9 to 5 job.”

Both the defense and the prosecutor agreed to an exceptional sentence of one year in prison, instead of the standard three to nine months. The judge went a step further and ordered more time behind bars.

Ray is prohibited from handling finances in other churches. The judge noted that members of a third church, in California, had accused Ray of financial mismanagement, before he moved to Washington and “did it again.”

Hancock quoted from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 12, verse 48.

“For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required; and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.”

Under the judge’s ruling, Ray is still allowed to attend church, tithe or volunteer in ministry.

“God only knows what darkness in Mr. Ray’s soul has caused him to do these things,” the judge said, “and I can only hope that he will seek redemption for this going forward, with his life.”

Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; chutton@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @snocaleb.

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