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.