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Blackmailing prostitute to return to jail

A 47-year-old Moorhead prostitute who admitted last fall to blackmailing a pastor who was a client is heading to jail again for a probation violation.

After pleading guilty to a felony coercion charge on Oct. 19, Bunny Byington was sentenced to 90 days in jail and up to 10 years of supervised probation.

Following her stint in jail, Byington was making weekly meetings with her probation agent through May 19 before informing the agent she wouldn't be checking in again, said Jenny Samarzja, an assistant Clay County attorney.

"She pretty much said, 'No, I'm not going to do it anymore,' " Samarzja said.

A warrant for Byington's arrest was issued July 8 for a probation violation.

In a hearing in Clay County District Court on Monday, she admitted she violated the terms of her probation and was sentenced to another 30 days in jail, with credit for the five days she's served since being arrested again. With the credits for time served and good behavior in jail, she'll likely serve 15 more days in jail, Samarzja said.

Byington is due to report to the Clay County Jail on Thursday, Samarzja said.

According to court records, Byington extorted $7,000 in hush money from the Rev. Mark Ostgarden of Valley City, N.D. When she demanded another $18,000, Ostgarden - a pastor at Our Savior's Lutheran in Valley City - couldn't come up with the additional cash, and Byington contacted his wife and church officials.

Ostgarden then resigned from his post in June 2009 and was removed from the clergy roster of his ELCA synod later that fall. He also went to police, and three felony charges of coercion were filed against Byington on July 1, 2009.

In a letter to The Forum sent last week, Byington said she planned to ask to execute her full sentence - meaning she'd serve the balance of a year in prison that was stayed when she pleaded guilty last fall. That would have freed her from serving probation, but she didn't request to do the full sentence at her hearing Monday.

Byington said in the letter that she wanted to get off probation to write a book about her experience. Her probation terms prevent her from having any sort of media presence.

"This book is going to inspire women to believe in themselves that they are worthy of second, third, fourth and even fifth chances in life," she wrote. "I am going to give them hope and inspiration that it is never too late to turn things around." Profits from the book would go to an organization that helps prostitutes rebuild their lives, she said.

Byington also chastised area media outlets in her letter and denied that she tried to blackmail anyone else. Shortly after her arrest, police said they were investigating whether she'd targeted other clients, but other charges weren't filed.

Though a presentencing investigation expressed a concern that Byington did not show remorse, she said in her July 29 letter that she accepts responsibility.

"I am not a stupid fool. I just made a stupid, foolish choice. That foolish choice was chasing money, not catastrophic retribution. We all make mistakes in life, and Lord knows I am a walking, living, breathing example of that," she wrote.