Feds continue search for indicted Napa wine exec

Chris Edwards accused of stealing $900,000 from the Wine Tasting Network
2013-07-16T17:37:00Z 2013-07-18T20:13:58Z Feds continue search for indicted Napa wine execKERANA TODOROV Napa Valley Register
July 16, 2013 5:37 pm  • 

The whereabouts of a former Napa wine executive suspected of stealing $900,000 from a wine fulfillment company remain unknown, almost a month after he failed to show up for his first federal court appearance.

Martin “Chris” Edwards, a two-time Napa City Council candidate and longtime community fundraiser, is suspected of stealing $900,000 from The Wine Tasting Network, according to an eight-page federal indictment. He’s been charged with 23 counts of mail fraud and money laundering, according to court records.

On June 17, a federal judge issued a no-bail warrant for his arrest when he failed to show up in court in San Francisco for his first appearance. He is a fugitive, representatives from the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice said Tuesday.

The FBI will not comment about rumors that Edwards may be in Mexico. “We won’t respond to anything of that nature,” FBI special agent Brian Weber said Tuesday. “All we can do is confirm there is an active investigation to find the fugitive.”

Edwards, The Wine Tasting Network’s former general manager, allegedly created fraudulent invoices and siphoned about $900,000 between May 2010 and October 2012 to a fictitious company he had created, Dufrane Compliance Trust, federal officials said. Edwards was indicted after a two-month investigation, according to federal officials.

According to a neighbor, Edwards, 48, has not been seen at his rented house on Casswall Street in west Napa, where he and his longtime partner, Scott Butler, have lived for years and were described as friendly neighbors.

On Saturday, a neighbor said a “For Rent” sign had just been planted on Edwards’ and Butler’s front lawn. A convertible silver BMW was in the driveway of the 1949 ranch-style three-bedroom house.

Approached by a reporter, Butler declined comment as he walked out of the house and left in another car.

According to Wyman Property Management Inc., a tenant has been found already and the house will be taken off the listings soon.

Both Butler and Edwards have been familiar figures in the Napa Valley.

Edwards ran unsuccessfully for a Napa City Council seat in 2003 and 2005. Both he and Butler volunteered for a number of organizations benefiting the gay and lesbian community and other causes, with Edwards often donating wine for fundraisers.

For years, they helped raise money for the annual Napa Valley Academy Awards party that benefits Queen of the Valley Medical Center’s CARE Network and its case management and education services for HIV/AIDS patients. Edwards was never in charge of the bookkeeping, a friend said.

Deb Stallings, a longtime Napa friend of Edwards,’ last week expressed her shock, sadness and worry over recent developments.

Edwards is a kind, generous and loving friend, said Stallings. “I’m completely saddened about the whole situation.”

She last saw Edwards about a week before the news came out about his indictment. “We had dinner with a group of friends,” she recalled.

Not knowing where he is, is really hard, Stallings said. “I want Chris to be safe, first and foremost,” she said. “I would like to see Chris recover from whatever the situation is.”

Stallings said she is disappointed she is not able to help. “As a friend, Chris Edwards never failed me. As a friend, Chris Edwards has always been there for me,” she said.

News of Edwards’ situation stunned others. “I was pretty surprised,” said former Napa City Councilman Jim Krider, who ran against Edwards in 2005.

Edwards’ legal entanglements with The Wine Tasting Network, a division of 1-800-FLOWERS.COM, began in January when the company sued Edwards for fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, unjust enrichment and other charges, according to the complaint.

Edwards worked for The Wine Tasting Network between February 2005 and November 2012. He left the company as vice president and general manager.

In the civil complaint, which also names Butler, the company alleged Edwards wrote and signed checks from The Wine Tasting Network to a Dufrane Trust — or Dufrane Compliance Trust — for $890,000.

The Wine Tasting Company alleged Dufrane was not a legitimate company, but an entity the defendants created for their alleged scheme, according to the lawsuit.

On May 10, Napa County Superior Court Superior Court Judge Diane Price ordered Edwards to pay $981,134 to The Wine Tasting Network, according to the judgment. Price also ordered Edwards to surrender confidential information, documents and an iPad the company had provided Edwards during his employment.

A federal grand jury indicted Edwards on May 30, alleging he had used Dufrane to siphon $900,000 from The Wine Tasting Network, according to the federal indictment. Federal prosecutors have alleged Edwards then used the money to write a $40,282 check in June 2012 to Weatherford BMW of Berkeley for a 2008 BMW, obtain $25,000 in cash in April 2012, and pay $24,000 in October 2012 to Coles Law Firm, according to the indictment.

Joe Pititto, a representative for 1-800-FLOWERS.COM, a company based in Westbury, N.Y, declined to comment on Edwards. “(As) a policy, 1-800-FLOWERS.COM does not comment on pending legal matters,” he said in an email.

In 2005, during his unsuccessful attempt to be elected to the City Council, Edwards was forced to respond to stories that he had been convicted of two felony counts of embezzlement in Cabarrus County, N.C. Edwards pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of larceny and was ordered to pay restitution.

Edwards in 2005 told the Register and friends his ex-wife wrote thousands of dollars in bad checks from a joint bank account. Edwards, who then divorced, said it was cheaper to plead guilty than to fight the charges in court.

In February 2006, a lawyer for New Vine Logistics Inc., a Napa company for whom Edwards worked between 2001 and 2005, sued Edwards and Butler in Napa County Superior Court after 20 checks totaling about $6,000 were allegedly stolen from the company and directed into a bank account under Edwards’ and Butler’s control, according to court records. The case was dismissed in March 2006.

Copyright 2015 Napa Valley Register. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(13) Comments

  1. Dnfromnapa
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    Dnfromnapa - July 16, 2013 6:51 pm
    He is living in Mexico as far as I know. Owners of a recently closed breakfast restaurant in downtown Napa bought a condo in the same complex in Mexico. They were surprised to see him and he asked them to not say anything. I heard all this hearsay, however, I think its good information.
  2. JJtoob
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    JJtoob - July 16, 2013 7:36 pm
    Coles Law? That's kind of funny.
  3. Old Time Napkin
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    Old Time Napkin - July 17, 2013 7:12 am
    Looks like Mr. Edwards has a long history of using other people's money. Just think of how he would have used the taxpayer's money if he was an elected politician.
  4. RJ
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    RJ - July 17, 2013 8:09 am
    So in 2005, the Register documented Edwards' past legal/criminal issues, and yet the Wine Tasting Network still hired him for a senior position? No way would anyone be in a significant business position with a past like that--in the vast majority of companies. Having met him during his election run, the guy gave the feeling of being sketchy then. Looking at history's biggest frauds and financial hucksters--many used fundraising as a cover to screen their embezzlements. This guy is just another example. When the little voice in you says somethng is wrong when you meet a person---listen to it.
  5. MrBurns
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    MrBurns - July 17, 2013 11:06 am
    At least the guy has a sense of humor naming his shell company Dufrane! (Shawshank Redemption, anyone?)
  6. Napkin'53
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    Napkin'53 - July 17, 2013 12:02 pm
    You gotta LOVE the name of his dummy Corp., Dufrane Compliance Trust. He must of watched Shawshank Redemption. That's where Andy Dufrane got back at the Warden and took all the money.
  7. Bauhausfan
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    Bauhausfan - July 17, 2013 1:18 pm
    He could be in Brazil, Nicarauga or any number of places. If he owns a condo in Mexico the last place you would go is there and if you did it's the first place the Feds will look.
  8. glenroy
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    glenroy - July 17, 2013 7:19 pm
    I feel for his family...hope they recover from all this...
  9. Joe Riordan
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    Joe Riordan - July 17, 2013 11:21 pm
    The Dufrane trust isn't the only connection to Shawshank Redemption. Andy Dufrane also fled to Mexico. Say it Red, San Juan Mateo. S the Feds should look in Buxton, by that giant tree, under that rock. Hey, reality just may be mirroring fantasy. That's exactly where that silver BMW is headed right now. Although I'm sure the Feds have put a GPS on that car.
  10. JustAnotherManicMonday
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    JustAnotherManicMonday - July 18, 2013 1:18 pm
    Sounds like he has all the necessary requirements to become a politician. Too bad he didn't win the Napa City Council election, he'd be on his way.
  11. MrBurns
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    MrBurns - July 18, 2013 7:58 pm
    I think you mean Zihuatanejo!
  12. Napareally
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    Napareally - July 23, 2013 7:06 pm
    I heard he is in Europe, He loved Germany and has set up a Taxi service via a Mercedes in Germany. LOL.. Claims born in Wales 30 years experience on the German tourist trade. That is true of his visits to Germany I bet.. Willommen Garmich Taxi Chris Edwards Germany. I'll use him and take a pic for all in the fall/
  13. C-Groom
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    C-Groom - November 14, 2013 9:49 am
    Is he still on the loose? There doesn't seem to be any updates in the news.
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