ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A Seward man who went missing last summer was lured to a trail near a remote beach and beaten to death with a baseball bat, according to a criminal complaint filed by investigators.
Five people have been charged with first-degree murder, second-degree murder and manslaughter in the Aug. 25 death of Preston Atwood, 21.
The five include Seward residents Laurel Correa, 19, her boyfriend, James Helberg, 18, Tyler Goddard, 19, Timothy Ryan, 24, and Ryan’s mother, Jennifer Harren, 46. Ryan is also charged with evidence tampering.
Goddard’s mother, Melanie Goddard, 39, is charged with witness tampering.
All are represented by the Alaska Public Defender Agency, which does not comment on pending cases and has not responded to an email request for comment.
Witness statements say the motive was Atwood’s predatory sexual actions toward young women, including Ryan’s girlfriend.
Atwood was using crutches for a broken leg when he disappeared. His body was found miles from the beach four days later hidden under brush along a power line trail about 9 miles (14.5 kilometres) north of the city. The state medical examiner concluded that Atwood died of blunt force injuries. He had extensive injuries to his head, neck and genitals.
Seward Police Chief Tom Clemons said last week the case is in the hands of prosecutors and he could not comment.
Helberg told Seward Police Department Sgt. Karl Schefermeyer that his girlfriend texted him to say she was with Atwood at the beach and that he had made unwanted advances toward her. Ryan drove his mother, Helberg and Goddard to the beach, where Helberg said the men had decided to confront Atwood and teach him a lesson.
The six walked down a trail to the beach and smoked pot, Helberg said.
As they walked back up the trail, Helberg said, he heard a loud crack and someone trying to cry out. He said he walked Correa to her truck and returned down the trail to see Ryan striking Atwood with a black baseball bat.
Helberg said he pleaded with Ryan to stop but Ryan didn’t until Atwood stopped moving. Goddard, Helberg said, stood by and watched. Harren, he said, watched part of the beating but walked away before it ended.
Helberg said they dragged Atwood’s body to the tree line. Ryan buried the bat and Atwood’s crutches, Helberg said, and they drove away.
Ryan, Harren and Helberg returned at midnight, Helberg said. They drove Atwood’s body to the power line trail and the men hid the body under branches while Harren held a flashlight.
Four days after Atwood went missing, Helberg on Aug. 29 guided Sgt. Schefermeyer to Atwood’s body. He also showed the officer where they beat him, and Schefermeyer recovered the bat and crutches.
Other witnesses and security video contradict Helberg’s statement.
A 17-year-old girl told police Helberg had contacted her Aug. 24 requesting that she try to meet with Atwood because Helberg wanted to talk to Atwood.
The girl contacted Atwood with a text message, but when Atwood learned she was just 17, he immediately stopped communicating. Helberg contacted the girls the night Atwood died and told her to delete her text messages, she told police.
Cellphone geolocations shortly before 8 p.m. Aug. 25 showed Helberg, Ryan and Harren leave a trailer park, pick up Goddard and drive toward the beach. Correa left the park as well, and security video showed her picking up Atwood around 8 p.m.
Cellphone records also show Helberg, Ryan and Harren in the area where Atwood’s body was found from about 1 a.m. until about 1:45 a.m., Schefermeyer said in the criminal complaint.
Ryan declined to speak to investigators. The other suspects gave conflicting accounts.
Harren denied seeing Atwood at the beach or being at the location where his body was found.
Correa acknowledged contacting Atwood, picking him up the night he disappeared and driving him to Fourth of July Beach. However, she said he inappropriately touched her leg and she kicked him out of her truck and drove off.
Goddard said he was checking on Correa’s dog back at her truck when he heard the bat hit Atwood. He said he drove off a few minutes later with Correa and learned of Atwood’s death in news accounts.
Dan Joling, The Associated Press