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Trail of thefts followed Napa wine executive


Friends of Chris Edwards describe the Napa man as a friendly, thoughtful guy who was always there when they needed him.

But interviews and public records reveal a side of Edwards that few knew before the wine executive was accused this week of embezzling $900,000 from his employer.

In 1993, Edwards was convicted of multiple counts of larceny in North Carolina, for amounts exceeding $200, according to public records. Then, as an executive at the wine company New Vine Logistics in 2005, he was accused of depositing three of the company's checks, totaling about $1,300, into an account in his name, according to the Napa County Sheriff's Office.

On Monday, after a two-month investigation by the FBI, Martin Christopher Edwards, who went by "Chris" in Wine Country, was accused of siphoning money from The Wine Tasting Network, a subsidiary of 1-800-Flowers.com.

Now, the company has shuttered its Napa direct-to-consumer wine shipping office and shifted those operations to Chicago, a company spokesman confirmed.

And Edwards is on the lam, after failing to appear Monday for a hearing at U.S. District Court in San Francisco, according to the FBI. Friends and former colleagues said they're concerned for his whereabouts, even as they take in the shock of the recent news.

"We're stunned ... and I think it's a sad state of affairs," said Joe Waechter, CEO of WineDirect, who worked with Edwards when WineDirect bought a fulfillment company that was affiliated with Wine Tasting Network.

"I've worked in a lot of different industries, and I've come across folks taking office equipment home, or a computer, even. I've come across people raiding the petty cash drawer," Waechter said. "The reason I'm stunned is I've never come across this, other than what I've seen on TV."

Attempts to reach Edwards by phone, email and social media were unsuccessful.

Deb Stallings, a member of the Napa Valley Unity League and a close friend of Edwards, depicted him as a man who wanted to make the world a better place. He helped organize the Napa Valley Academy Awards, a fundraising event that aims to help victims of AIDS and cancer, and the Napa Valley AIDS Walk. Although he was involved with the fundraisers, he wasn't in charge of accepting donations or depositing money, Stallings said.

"He was one of my very best friends," said Stallings, who has known Edwards for a decade. "He was just a geek ... He was this big old goof, and he has a goofy laugh."

Stallings described Edwards as a smart, politically savvy man who recommended management books like "Who Moved My Cheese?" and who read poetry at her wedding. She had met up with Edwards and several other friends nearly two weeks ago for dinner, and everything seemed fine, she said.

"A week later, my phone starts blowing up," Stallings said. "It's Pride Week in Napa Valley now. We're together a lot right now, and it's on people's minds that one of us is missing."

Reached by phone, Scott Butler, Edwards' partner, said he was blindsided by the news, but said he could not comment further without a lawyer.

Edwards ran unsuccessfully for Napa City Council about a decade ago. During the campaign, details emerged about the larceny convictions in North Carolina, Stallings said. She and other friends confronted him to find out what happened.

"He said he was married to a woman that had written bad checks, and that made sense," Stallings said. "I didn't lose sleep over that, because it made sense."

Around that time, Edwards was a senior manager at New Vine Logistics, a wine industry fulfillment house. A coworker from New Vine filed a complaint with the Napa Valley Sheriff's Office in 2005 about how Edwards was handling the money.

"Somebody at the business where he was working had noticed they were missing checks that should have been made out to the business," sheriff's Capt. Tracy Stuart said. "All three checks had been made out to the business, and had been deposited into an account belonging to Martin Edwards."

The checks were for $332.41, $740 and $270, Stuart said. New Vine executives had wanted to consult with lawyers before filing charges, but never followed up to prosecute, Stuart said.

"Most people are just interested in getting their money back, so a lot of times on embezzlement cases they'll start with us and then resolve it themselves," Stuart said. "Unfortunately, that lets a lot of people not have criminal records that deserve them."

That same year, Edwards moved into a management position at Wine Tasting Network, also known as winetasting.com, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Representing winetasting.com, Edwards sponsored events in the wine industry including seminars run by the Wine Industry Symposium Group, said Kathy Archer, president of the group.

"I'm very saddened by it. I just thought he was doing very well with his business," Archer said. "We were asking, 'What happened? He seems to be out of touch lately.' It just was not what I thought ... I just thought he was a very nice person."

The federal indictment by the U.S. Attorney's Office states that from May 2010 through December 2012, Edwards devised a scheme to defraud 1-800-Flowers.com, which owns The Wine Tasting Network, out of about $900,000. Prosecutors allege that Edwards created a fictitious company, called 'Dufrane Compliance Trust,' a company that provided regulatory compliance services to the wine industry. They allege that Edwards emailed requests for payment to Dufrane, and then used the money to pay personal expenses including a $40,282 check paid to Weatherford BMW, a $24,000 check paid to Coles Law Firm, and a $25,000 check paid to cash. He was accused of 23 counts of money laundering, wire fraud and mail fraud.

Joseph Pititto, spokesman for 1-800-Flowers.com, said the company would not comment on legal matters. But he confirmed that Wine Tasting Network's operations were moved to Chicago and out of Napa.

"It is being run by the gourmet food and gift baskets segment," Pititto said.

WineDirect, the company that bought wine fulfillment company WTN Services from 1-800-Flowers.com in 2011, was not impacted by the embezzlement charges, Waechter said.

Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa, which was a beneficiary of the Napa Valley Academy Awards event that Edwards helped organize, was not concerned about the possibility that funds may have been mishandled, said Vanessa DeGier, spokeswoman.

"He's one of many who helped support the fundraiser," DeGier said. "As far as I can tell, I don't think there's any kind of connection with the money raised for this event. I don't think he was the money handler."

Late Thursday, FBI officials confirmed that Edwards had not yet been taken into custody.

"None of us are all good, and none of us are all bad, and I have to say I only know the good parts of Chris," Stallings said. "Hopefully he knows that there are people here who are certainly disappointed, but still love him, and want what's best for him. He's on all of our minds."

News researcher Janet Balicki contributed to this report.