Pastor and family stole $8M from taxpayers in Covid scam, feds say. Why haven’t they been charged?

·13 min read

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.

Joy Edwards, Evan and Mary Jane Edwards, and Josh Edwards. (via Facebook)
Joy Edwards, Evan and Mary Jane Edwards, and Josh Edwards. (via Facebook)

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.

The family’s New Smyrna Beach house. (NBC News)
The family’s New Smyrna Beach house. (NBC News)

First Home Bank notified Josh Edwards that ASLAN International was eligible to receive more money than he had asked for: a total of $8.4 million.

In May 2020, the money landed in an account that previously held a balance of $25, according to the complaint. It was disbursed into multiple bank accounts held under the names of all four family members, the complaint says.

“The perpetrators of the fraud attempted to conceal the source, nature and location of the bank fraud proceeds by moving the proceeds through numerous bank accounts, held in different names,” the complaint says.

Warren Smith, president of the Evangelical Christian watchdog Ministry Watch, said ASLAN’s fraud was easily detectable. “If you just did a couple of Google searches on the name of this organization, the bank would have known that there was nothing there,” Smith said.

Tom Zernick, the president of First Home Bank, said in a statement that the documentation submitted by ASLAN “met the requirements of the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) at that time.”

Two months after the money arrived in the ASLAN accounts, the Edwards family tried to purchase a $3.7 million home in a new Disney World development called Golden Oaks, the complaint says. Mary Jane Edwards was the only person listed on the purchase contract.

But the deal never went through. The authorities seized the $868,000 that was set aside for the down payment on the 4,700-square-foot home, the complaint says.

The feds move in

It’s not clear when it began, but the federal investigation gained momentum in September 2020.

Agents visited ASLAN International’s office in Orlando and found that neighboring businesses did not recall seeing any employees there, the complaint says. A review of the website found that the donation links were inactive and sections of text were apparently lifted from other religious sites, according to the complaint.

And while the ministry’s pandemic loan application said it had a monthly payroll of $2.7 million, it had reported its monthly income as just $5,500 in charity filings to the Canadian government, according to a review of the documents.

Canadian authorities acting at the U.S.’s request tracked down Walter Gnida, who was listed on documents as the ministry’s accountant and who had allegedly signed off on the loans. Gnida remained silent and unresponsive as his son told investigators his father and Evan Edwards had known each other for years but Gnida now suffered from dementia and hadn’t done any work for ASLAN since at least 2017, the complaint says.

Gnida's son did not respond to a request for comment.

On Sept. 8, 2020, federal agents showed up at the Edwards home, but no one answered the door. That night, Evan and Josh Edwards stopped by some of their neighbors’ houses to ask if two men had come to ask them questions, the complaint says.

The answer was yes. The neighbors told them the men wanted to know who lived at the Edwards residence, according to the complaint.

Armed with a search warrant, a swarm of federal agents descended on the Edwards’ home nine days later, according to neighbors and the federal complaint. No vehicles or people were there, and the home was “cleared out,” the complaint says.

Secret Service cars parked out front of their New Smyrna Beach house when they went there to arrest them. (Obtained by NBC News)
Secret Service cars parked out front of their New Smyrna Beach house when they went there to arrest them. (Obtained by NBC News)

The family’s Mercedes was stopped later that evening, roughly 150 miles away. A police report says Florida officers pulled over the vehicle after being contacted by the Secret Service, which had been tracking it.

All four members of the family were taken into custody. They were charged with filing fraudulent immigration documents at the Canadian border.

The visa forms submitted by the family said they would be working in the U.S. on behalf of Gnida, the dementia-stricken accountant, in the name of ASLAN International, according to a criminal complaint. The interview with Gnida’s son suggested that Gnida’s signature on the documents was forged, authorities said.

But in an unusual turn of events, the charges were dismissed the next day after a U.S. customs officer noted that he had misread the interview reports. Gnida’s son said his ailing father could have signed the documents even though he had no memory of doing so, the customs officer said in an affidavit.

The family was released from custody the day after the traffic stop, according to court documents.

The details of the stop came to light in court records that were made public in December 2020, generating a burst of attention in Florida. The Edwardses did not challenge the seizure of the $8 million in loans, all of which was recovered by the Justice Department.

The federal government has taken no action against the Edwardses since then, according to a search of public court records.

“This sequence of events is incredibly rare and unusual,” said Little, the former federal prosecutor.

He said he couldn’t understand why the government would go to such lengths to stop and detain the Edwards family but then seemingly walk away from the case.

“It raises a series of questions about what’s going on,” he added.

The Edwardses’ house remained boarded up and unoccupied for several months after the traffic stop. But to the neighbors’ shock, Evan and his son ultimately returned and have been living at the house, according to neighbors. The whereabouts of his wife and daughter are unknown.

“They just reappeared like nothing ever happened,” one neighbor said.

“You do that. You get caught. How are there no repercussions?”

The neighbor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for privacy reasons, said the family’s notoriety made for an awkward dynamic on the block.

“What do you say to them — 'How are you doing today? Steal any millions?’” he added.

The case does not seem to have squashed the family’s religious efforts.

Last fall, they caught the attention of a ministry watchdog after contributors to ASLAN International received an email from “Edwards Family Ministries” with a subject line that boasted: “948 salvations so far.”

The email contained a link to a since-deleted YouTube video titled Texas that featured “18 minutes of footage showing Evan Edwards praying over people in a drive-thru event,” according to The Roys Report.

Evan Edwards and his daughter, Joy, pray for people at a drive-thru event in an undated video. (The Roys Report)
Evan Edwards and his daughter, Joy, pray for people at a drive-thru event in an undated video. (The Roys Report)

Evan Edwards does not seem to have been hiding from the authorities.

In June 2021, he met with a notary public in Volusia County to transfer the New Smyrna Beach home into his name from ASLAN’s, according to local records.

The ASLAN International website is no longer active, but the ministry’s state records are up to date.  A couple of months ago, the family changed ASLAN’s address from their home in New Smyrna Beach to the address for a local UPS store in town, according to Florida Secretary of State filings.

On the Edwards’ block, some neighbors now refer to the family by a nickname: the embezzlers.

“We would really like to see them put in prison,” said one person who lives nearby. “It’s just so sad to see when scammers take money that’s intended for people who really need it.”

Multiple neighbors said Edwards didn’t appear sullen or defeated in the wake of the incident. And his faith apparently hadn’t been shaken.

He told people on the block he believed that divine intervention helped the family navigate their legal issues. According to one neighbor, he put it this way: “God saved us.”