Walter Gnida, a retired truck driver and part-time accountant, was 88 years old and suffering from dementia when his name appeared on a loan application from a Christian ministry seeking millions of dollars in federal Covid relief money.
The application was filed by Josh Edwards, whose father, Evan Edwards, was the leader of ASLAN International Ministry based in Florida.
The Edwardses ultimately got a boatload of aid money: $8.4 million. But they’re now in federal custody and facing multiple counts of fraud — as well as the ire of Walter Gnida’s family.
“It’s an utter betrayal,” his son, Kevin Gnida, said in an interview from his home in Edmonton, Canada.
Kevin Gnida said his late father lionized Evan Edwards, a fellow evangelical Christian who spent years handing out bibles in Turkey but would have never knowingly signed off on paperwork that vastly overstated the size of ASLAN International.
“I know with 100 percent confidence that my dad would have never participated in this,” Kevin Gnida added. “I’m glad they got caught.”
Evan, 64, and Josh Edwards, 30, were arrested at their home in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, on Dec. 14.
The Paycheck Protection Program loan application had said ASLAN International employed 486 people and had an average monthly payroll of $2.7 million. But federal prosecutors said in an indictment that Evan and Josh Edwards knew that ASLAN’s actual number of employees and actual monthly payroll expenses were “significantly lower, or entirely nonexistent.”
The Edwardses had sought to use some of the money they received from the federal government to buy a $3.7 million, 4,700-square-foot home in a new Disney World development called Golden Oaks. But the deal never went through, and authorities ultimately recovered all of the Covid aid money.
The two men were charged with a total of six counts, including bank fraud and making a false statement to a lending agency.
“Bad actors will take advantage of the good will that has been built up over generations, and it’s important to root them out,” said Warren Smith, president of the evangelical Christian watchdog Ministry Watch.
Evan and Josh Edwards' first court appearance didn’t go smoothly.
Evan Edwards failed to show up because he’s in poor health and refused to get in his wheelchair while in a court holding cell, his lawyer told the judge. Josh Edwards remained silent during the hearing, even when the judge asked him a series of basic questions, according to a transcript obtained by NBC News.
A judge ordered the father and son to remain in custody pending the completion of medical and psychiatric exams.
Kind and trusting
Walter Gnida’s name came to the attention of federal authorities after they began investigating ASLAN International in 2020. He was identified on the loan application as the organization’s accountant and had purportedly signed off on the information contained within it.
Canadian authorities acting at the U.S.’s request tracked down Gnida in September 2020. He 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, according to prosecutors.
Kevin Gnida said his father was severely diminished when the local authorities showed up asking about Evan Edwards. The son said he couldn’t say whether his father had actually signed his name on the loan application form but had the ailing, elderly man done so he would not have understood what he was actually signing.
“He was physically and mentally declining,” Kevin Gnida said.
Walter Gnida died in January 2022. His son described him as a deeply religious man who was kind and trusting almost to a fault.
Walter Gnida had begun doing light accounting work later in life after taking an H&R Block tax course. Most of his clients were truck drivers and farmers who were friends or friends of friends. There were also a few small Christian organizations, Kevin Gnida said.
“Nobody came to my dad because they had money,” he said. “They came to my dad because they had no money.”
He added that his father greatly admired Evan Edwards, who had done missionary work in Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s. Edwards grew up in Canada as Ian Heringa but changed his name after his family’s proselytizing in the predominantly Muslim country made him a target.
“He’d say they’re devout people who are putting their life on the line to share the gospel,” Kevin Gnida said of his father. “He spoke very highly of him.”
Kevin Gnida said he and his brother didn’t view Evan Edwards in the same light. And he thinks even less of the man now.
“It’s horribly disappointing,” he said. “There is no ethics or sense of right or wrong there at all.”