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In N.J. court, Philly man apologizes for harassment of minister

Their online exchange began over a "Resist white supremacy" sign outside an Ambler church.

Joseph Baird at Evesham Township Municipal Court.
Joseph Baird at Evesham Township Municipal Court.Read moreDAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer

The Rev. Ryan Paetzold says he's been praying for Joseph Baird, a.k.a. "Chetd Joe" (for "machete"), the Philadelphia man who pleaded guilty Thursday to harassing the Audubon, Camden County, pastor on social media.

If the defendant, who had no prior criminal record, stays out of trouble for two years, the matter will be dismissed.

And Paetzold, the 36-year-old pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Audubon, said he is satisfied that justice has been done.

"He clearly has hate in his heart, and whyever and however it's there, [I pray] that it changes," Paetzold said outside Evesham Township Municipal Court.

A few minutes earlier, Baird, 41, of the 2000 block of East Elkhart Street in Philly's Kensington section, saw for the first time the clergyman he had branded as "queer" online and looked him in the eye.

Baird was no longer hidden behind a pseudonym, posting photos of himself with what appeared to be a machete or showboating for his Facebook fans.

Instead, he was face to face in a South Jersey courtroom with a Lutheran clergyman whose online comments against white supremacy had gotten under the Philly man's skin.

"I was wrong," Baird,  an ordinary-looking, middle-aged fellow wearing a red polo shirt, black jeans, and black sneakers, said softly.

"I apologize, and I'm sorry for the way I made you feel. I apologize to everybody."

Nowhere in evidence was the threatening bravado of "Chetd Joe," the Facebook name under which a man police later identified as Baird brandished photos he poached from Paetzold's own Facebook page, seemingly using them as a rallying cry for those who see opposition to white supremacists as a slur against all whites.

Their online exchange began after a "Resist white supremacy" sign outside St. John's Lutheran Church in Ambler drew venomous criticism on that congregation's Facebook page. The Montgomery County church displayed the sign in reaction to the Aug. 12 Charlottesville, Va., rally by white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

Paetzold was among the clergy on the St. John's Facebook page who posted messages of support for the sign; Baird was among those assailing the sign.

Screenshots Paetzold shared with me show that he initially attempted to have a dialogue with Baird, who in turn contended that criticizing white supremacy was disrespectful to all white people, and questioned why Black Lives Matter was not being chastized.

But the pastor said he ended the Facebook conversation and contacted police because of the increasingly ominous tone of some follow-up posts, photographs, and comments directed at him:

"Attention: BROTHERS THIS IS HIM … he hates whites and he hates straight people."

"Don't worry if he deletes it," Baird said in another text added to a picture of Paetzold. "I have screenshots of him."

One of Baird's Facebook friends posted about having "petrol and matches;" Baird also made an approving reference to suburban Philly's supposed "KKK" friendliness.

The matter came before Municipal Court Judge Karen J. Caplan because Paetzold and his wife, a Moorestown public school teacher who is pregnant with their first child, live in Evesham. The pastor filed a complaint with township police following the social media exchange with Baird on Aug. 24.

"Did you post derogatory statements against the victims in this matter on a Facebook page in an effort to intimidate them?" Caplan asked.

"Yes, your honor," said Baird, who was represented by lawyer Steven A. Traub of Cherry Hill.

Paetzold represented himself but was accompanied by six supporters, most of them clergymen. The pastor has become something of a cause celebre among progressive congregations of many faiths in New Jersey.

"Today sent a very powerful message to everyone that you can't just go around intimidating people without repercussions," Archange Antoine, executive director of the Faith New Jersey organization, said following the verdict.

"I think this was justice," he added. "Somebody who tried to hide on social media was caught, brought to the court, and given a penalty. I think this was justice."

Justice will be served, said Rabbi Larry Sernovitz of the Nafshenu congregation in Cherry Hill, "if he [Baird] can turn around, and that hate comes out of his heart, and he can see the humanity in the other, and hear their stories."

"Because if we can't see the shared humanity in the other, then names become numbers, and people become objects."