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.