Pastor sentenced for stealing Oso slide donations

OAK HARBOR, Wash. (AP) — 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.”

The Everett Herald reports 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. “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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.