Federal agents in Florida had been seeking to question Evan Edwards, a pastor, and his family for days when their Mercedes SUV was spotted speeding on I-75 north of Gainesville.
The Edwardses were Christian missionaries from Canada who lived in Turkey for many years and moved to Florida in 2019. On paper they ran a faith-based charity with a high-minded mission: to “communicate Christian love in doctrine and service to the poor.”
But by the fall of 2020, the family of four — dad Evan; mom Mary Jane; daughter Joy, 36; and son Josh, 30 — were suspected of pulling off a multimillion-dollar fraud that targeted the government’s Covid relief program for small businesses and nonprofits.
The Edwardses received more than $8 million after Josh filed paperwork falsely claiming that their ministry, ASLAN International Ministry, had 486 employees and a monthly payroll of $2.7 million, according to a federal forfeiture complaint.
A federal investigation raised serious red flags. Among them: The accountant who purportedly signed off on the loan allegedly had dementia and hadn’t done any work for the organization since 2017.
Now, just after 8:49 p.m. on Sept. 17, 2020, the Edwardses’ beige Mercedes was being pulled over by three Florida Highway Patrol cars. All four family members were inside the vehicle.
Evan Edwards told the officers they were headed to a conference in Texas, but he could not provide any specifics, according to the complaint.
Federal agents arrived on the scene and began searching the 2020 Mercedes. What they found indicated this was not a typical road trip.
Edwards, seated in the front passenger seat, had a laser printer on his lap. In a rear passenger seat, next to his wife and daughter, were two clear garbage bags full of shredded documents, according to the complaint.
The family’s personal electronic devices were stuffed into a so-called Faraday bag, which blocks radio frequencies to keep from being tracked, the complaint says.
There were also suitcases full of financial records, two other Faraday bags with laptops and tablets inside, a document shredder, and multiple backpacks containing external hard drives and USB drives, according to the complaint.
“Other electronic documents located in the search include a 49-page research manual published by the Bureau of Justice related to ‘Tracing Money Flows Through Financial Institutions,’” the federal complaint says.
The U.S. government’s rush to distribute aid money during the pandemic created a bonanza for fraudsters at home and abroad. Since 2020, the Justice Department has prosecuted more than 177 people for allegedly defrauding the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
A federal judge in Florida ultimately ordered the forfeiture of the $8 million the Edwards family had received after the government claimed that it was the proceeds from bank fraud and money laundering offenses.
But more than 18 months after the Florida traffic stop, authorities have yet to charge any member of the Edwards family with a crime.
The inaction is especially curious given that other suspected Covid-relief fraudsters have been hit with criminal charges despite being accused of stealing far less money.
A Vermont man, for instance, was arrested and charged after he fraudulently obtained $55,000 in loans (he was sentenced to two years probation). A Georgia man was sentenced to three years in prison after he was convicted of fraudulently filing for $2.6 million in Paycheck Protection Program loans.
“I would imagine an $8 million PPP fraud case is one that you would want to bring and want to bring quickly,” Alex Little, a former federal prosecutor who now practices law in Nashville, Tennessee, said, referring to the Edwardses’ case. “I don’t understand why they haven’t been indicted.”
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida emailed NBC News that the office declined to comment.
Roy Dotson, the national pandemic fraud recovery coordinator for the U.S. Secret Service, which led the investigation, said, “Due to the fact that this is an ongoing investigation, the Secret Service cannot provide any additional information related to this case at this time.”
The Edwards family did not respond to emails or messages sent through social media, and no one answered the door at their home in New Smyrna Beach, Florida.
The scam and its unraveling stunned their neighbors as well as members of Evan Edwards’ extended family.
“We don’t know what he’s been up to,” said Alan Heringa, a cousin, who said he last spoke to Evan in 2017.
“We’re interested to hear the full story. It’s just totally out of character for a man of God, supposedly.”
One neighbor put it more bluntly.
“This guy needs to be in jail,” said the neighbor, who spoke about what he had read in the news about the case. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to maintain his privacy.
“He stole money during a pandemic. He stole it in the name of God. That makes you the worst scuzz on the face of the Earth.”
A turbulent time in Turkey
The man now known as Evan Edwards grew up in Edmonton, one of three boys in a family that wasn’t religious, according to his cousin.
He was born Ian Heringa, but he changed his name after a turbulent period in Turkey, where his proselytizing made him a target of harassment.
His devotion to Christianity began in his late teens or early 20s when a girlfriend introduced him to a church in the area. It wasn’t long before Edwards’ father stopped sending him money because “he was giving all of it to the church,” his cousin said.
Edwards went on to marry Mary Jane, a Filipino immigrant. The couple moved to Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country, in the late 1980s after the birth of their two children.
“We knew we wanted to preach the gospel where it was not preached,” Evan Edwards said in a 2008 radio interview.
He worked with a Christian mission group, Operation Mobilization, and later founded ASLAN International Ministry, which he has said was named after the Turkish word for lion.
Edwards has claimed his organization distributed more than 500,000 copies of the New Testament in Turkey. In the process, he has said, he became a target of local authorities.
“I have been arrested and harassed by the police and military in Turkey over 50 times,” he said in a 2012 interview with The Christian Post.
“I got attacked on the street and beat up,” he added. “I have jumped over fences, slipped out of side doors and hid in the most unusual of places. Opposition came in the form of having my book distribution company closed by the government and having to report to the police.”
A person who was once affiliated with ASLAN International would later tell investigators that the pastor changed his name to Evan Edwards because he was banned from Turkey and wished to return at a later date under a new identity, the complaint says.
The family moved back to Canada about 10 years ago, and Evan Edwards continued to preach, his cousin said.
“Everything he did was for the church,” added the cousin, Alan Heringa.
In October 2018, Edwards bought a three-bedroom home in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, for $332,500. The family flew from Edmonton to Orlando on June 29, 2019, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The Edwardses home was in a new community centered around an 18-hole golf course and a country club. The property backs up to a human-made pond.
When they first arrived in New Smyrna Beach, the Edwardses had a modest sedan. But they soon upgraded to the Mercedes. They also filled their garage with top-of-the-line exercise equipment, though the inside of the house appeared relatively spare, neighbors said.
“I asked him, ‘Are you running a business out of there?’” a neighbor recalled. “He said, ‘No, I’m running a ministry.’”
Then the coronavirus hit and crippled the U.S. economy. In April 2020, Josh Edwards applied for a $6 million Paycheck Protection Program loan to cover payroll, rent and utilities for his family’s ministry, according to a federal complaint.