Is a Florida pastor accused of fraud feigning illness to avoid prison?
The mystery over the health of a Florida pastor accused in a Covid relief scam has deepened after a court-ordered psychiatrist prepared a report that suggested he might be faking some of his symptoms.
The pastor, Evan Edwards, has been hospitalized since December when he and his son were arrested on charges of fraudulently obtaining $8 million in pandemic loans for a sham ministry.
A judge ordered a psychiatrist to examine Edwards, 64, after he refused to participate in his first court appearance and mumbled incoherently in a subsequent one. But the psychiatrist, Dr. Ryan Hall, wasn’t able to shed much light on the pastor’s health.
Edwards was “unable or unwilling” to engage with the psychiatrist, Magistrate Judge Leslie Hoffman Price said at a Jan. 26 court hearing, according to a transcript obtained by NBC News.
Hall ultimately determined that Edwards was unfit to stand trial. But the judge said there were questions over whether the accused fraudster was feigning illness.
“I know there’s a suggestion of potential malingering on some aspects, but there’s medical issues that are completely verifiable,” Price said.
The judge offered no further details because the specifics of Edwards’ health issues, as well as Hall’s report, are still under seal. Hall reached his conclusion that Edwards was not competent after spending only 15 minutes with him.
Hall was “unable to determine if it’s a medical issue or if it’s a mental issue or some combination of the same,” Price said.
Edwards’ court-appointed lawyer, Brian Phillips, told the judge he thought the report was inconsistent and raised more questions than answers. He said he believed the issue should be resolved in a competency hearing.
“I can’t take Dr. Hall’s report at face value,” Phillips added.
The judge then raised the issue of how to proceed with a detention hearing with Edwards' mental fitness in question. She asked Phillips if he was able to communicate with his client.
"In only the most limited fashion, your honor," Phillips replied.
He said Edwards has only communicated in “monosyllabic responses or gestures to simple binary questions.”
“I’m able to discern from that that he would prefer to not be handcuffed, ankle and wrist, to the hospital bed that he’s been in since December,” Phillips said. “That much, I’m certain of.”
A competency hearing is expected to take place later this month.
Phillips did not return a request for comment.
Edwards was in a wheelchair when federal agents arrested him and his son, Josh, 30, at their home in New Smyrna Beach, where his wife and daughter also lived. They each face up to 30 years in prison if convicted on the top count of conspiracy to commit bank fraud.
At the initial court appearance, a lawyer for Josh Edwards told the judge he was having trouble communicating with his client, prompting the judge to ask a series of basic questions including "Are you in pain?"
Josh Edwards didn’t say a word, and the judge ordered a psychiatric exam.
But then a prosecutor chimed in, noting that the agents who arrested him earlier in the day said he was “speaking and responding to them just fine.”
If the Edwardses were faking an illness or exaggerating symptoms, it wouldn’t be the first time accused criminals did so to avoid prison.
In perhaps the most famous case, mobster Vincent “The Chin” Gigante delayed his racketeering trial for years by acting strange — a move that garnered him a second nickname, “Oddfather.”
The arrest of Edwards and his son came more than two years after federal agents showed up at the home to execute a search.
Later that day in September 2020, Florida police officers pulled over the family’s Mercedes SUV as it was heading north on a highway in central Florida, about 150 miles from the family’s home, according to a police report.
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 Faraday bag, which blocks radio frequencies to keep the devices 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.
The Edwardses were taken into custody but released the next day.
The case centers on a $6 million Paycheck Protection Program loan application filed by Josh Edwards to cover payroll, rent and utilities for his family’s religious organization, ASLAN International Ministry.
The documents said that ASLAN had 486 employees and a monthly payroll of $2.7 million. ASLAN International was ultimately approved for an $8.4 million loan.
But federal investigators later found that its offices had been abandoned, its website donation links inactivated and its payroll expenses and revenues “significantly lower or entirely nonexistent,” according to a civil forfeiture complaint.
The family 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.
In court late last month, a prosecutor said the government believes Edwards poses a serious flight risk and would oppose his release to home confinement.
“This is a difficult situation and set of facts, but there is a history of flight, and the family was involved in that — the same family that would be caring for him,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kara Wick told the judge, according to the transcript.
The U.S. Marshals Service has been working with Orange County officials to find a local correctional facility that can accommodate Edwards given his complex medical issues.
He was cleared for discharge from the hospital in December, but all of the detention centers in the area have refused to house him, prosecutors said in a Feb. 3 court filing.
According to a health official with the Orange County jail, Edwards requires “total daily care,” consisting of “intervention at least every hour or two hours; and assistance with daily living tasks, including a feeding tube,” the filing says.
While a facility in South Carolina has agreed to take Edwards through a special program, his lawyer said he believes the better option is for him to go home to be cared for by his family.
“According to Defendant’s family, the family has been trained to care for him at home as a result of his medical conditions which came to light last summer,” Phillips wrote in the filing.
The response from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida was unambiguous.
“The government’s position is that release to the defendant’s family is inappropriate,” prosecutors wrote.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com