A Florida pastor accused of fraudulently obtaining $8 million in Covid relief funds is in declining health and appears to be unable to speak, his lawyer said after he failed to appear in court.
"There are grave medical concerns," Erin Hyde told a federal judge in Orlando on Wednesday, according to a transcript of the hearing obtained by NBC News.
Evan Edwards, 64, and his son Josh, 30, were arrested at their New Smyrna Beach home earlier in the day. They each face up to 30 years in prison if convicted on the top count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud.
What was supposed to be their first court appearance went sideways fast.
Evan Edwards was a no-show after he told officers he had medical issues and refused to get in his wheelchair in a court holding cell, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kara Wick told the judge.
That prompted U.S. Magistrate Judge David Baker to ask his lawyer whether she had gotten the chance to speak to him.
"I have tried to, Your Honor," Hyde said, according to the transcript. "Mr. Edwards appears to be nonverbal. I don't know that he understood anything that I said."
Hyde added: “I didn’t get any responses from him. If he said a word or two, they were not words in a complete sentence or that were relevant to what I was talking about.”
Baker ordered that Evan Edwards be held and evaluated by a doctor.
Things took a stranger turn when the judge turned his attention to Josh Edwards, who did appear in the courtroom.
His lawyer, Charles E. Taylor Jr., said he had trouble communicating with his client, who suggested that he had a different lawyer. Taylor told the judge he reached out to that attorney but that the attorney said he didn’t represent Josh Edwards.
“So the most I could get out of him was he wanted to speak with his attorney, which he did not have, and his mother and sister, who are currently in the courtroom,” Taylor said.
“Your Honor, this is the first time that I’ve had this happen. I do believe there is a competency issue in this case.”
The judge proceeded to ask Josh Edwards three questions — Can you hear me? Are you in pain? Do you understand where you are? — and each elicited no response at all.
The judge then announced that he would be ordering a psychiatric evaluation, which prompted the prosecutor to chime in.
“I have no objection to that, Your Honor,” Wick said. “I would note for the record, however, that the agents interacted with Mr. Josh Edwards this morning, and he was speaking and responding to them just fine.”
If Josh Edwards were pretending to be mentally incapacitated, it wouldn’t be the first time a person accused of a crime had feigned mental health issues. In perhaps the most famous case, mobster Vincent “The Chin” Gigante delayed his racketeering trial for years by acting crazy — a move that garnered him a second nickname, "Oddfather."
The 13-minute hearing ended with Evan Edwards’ lawyer telling the judge there were grave concerns around his health.
The lawyers for Evan and Josh Edwards didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The father and son were taken into custody five months after an NBC News report raised questions over why they hadn’t been charged in the alleged scam, which federal prosecutors first outlined in court papers in December 2020.
The case centers on a Paycheck Protection Program loan application Josh Edwards filed in April 2020. The application said the family’s religious organization, ASLAN International Ministry, had 486 employees and a monthly payroll of $2.7 million.
ASLAN received an $8.4 million loan as the pandemic was raging. But federal prosecutors say the claims in the application were bogus.
Evan and Josh Edwards knew that ASLAN’s actual number of employees and actual monthly payroll expenses were “significantly lower, or entirely nonexistent,” according to an indictment unsealed Wednesday.
The two men, who are originally from Canada, were hit with a total of six charges, including conspiracy to commit bank fraud and visa fraud.
The arrests weren’t their first run-in with law enforcement.
In September 2020, federal agents showed up at the Edwardses’ home to execute a search warrant, but no one was there, and the place had been “cleared out,” according to a civil forfeiture complaint.
Later that day, Florida police officers pulled over the family’s Mercedes SUV as they were heading north on a highway in Central Florida, about 150 miles from their home, according to a police report.
Federal agents arrived and found a number of suspicious items in the vehicle, which Josh Edwards was driving.
Evan 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 civil forfeiture complaint.
The family’s personal electronic devices were stuffed into a so-called Faraday bag, which blocks radio frequencies to keep from being tracked.
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, the complaint says.
All four members of the family were taken into custody. They were charged with filing fraudulent immigration documents at the Canadian border; they were released the next day after the charges were dropped.
Six months later, in April 2021, a federal judge in Florida ordered the forfeiture of the $8.4 million the Edwards family had received after the government claimed that it was the proceeds from bank fraud and money laundering offenses. The Edwards family did not challenge the seizure.
They had tried to use the money to buy a $3.7 million, 4,700-square-foot home in a new Disney World development called Golden Oaks, according to prosecutors.
But the deal never went through. The authorities seized the $868,000 that had been set aside for the down payment.
CORRECTION (Dec. 19, 2022, 1:06 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the source of a particular quote. It was Kara Wick, not Erin Hyde, who said: "I have no objection to that, Your Honor. I would note for the record, however, that the agents interacted with Mr. Josh Edwards this morning, and he was speaking and responding to them just fine."