Brandon Edwards waited seven long years for a chance to tell his story.
He’d been accused of crimes he didn’t commit — attempted first-degree murder, kidnapping and assault on the handicapped — among other charges. He’d been arrested on the basis of sloppy detective work by the Yadkin County Sheriff’s Office and a questionable photo lineup conducted by the victim’s family that helped guide her to make an identification debunked in court.
He’d been jailed for months trying to make bond, had three different lawyers and was ultimately forced to sweat out a trial in which no law enforcement officers would take the witness stand. All that despite video evidence that showed he was at work in Winston-Salem when the victim first said the attack took place.
The victim has suffered mightily, as well. She nearly died from her injuries and has been traumatized by a system that failed her, too.
If Edwards had been convicted, he could have spent the next 20 years in prison and missed seeing his daughter grow up.
He was angry and very much looking forward to telling his story, which he views as a cautionary tale for anyone operating under the assumption that police and prosecutors never make mistakes.
“Whatever he tells you happened to him,” said Ashley Cannon, the defense lawyer who won Edwards’ acquittal, “the reality is 10 times worse.”
But before Edwards could let his words flow, he had a phone call he had to take.
A terrible assault
There’s no question that what happened to Amy Reece inside her Yadkin County home the night of Aug. 27, 2014, was horrible. Photos of her lying in a hospital bed are difficult to view.
To this day, despite the acquittal and overwhelming evidence supporting the jury’s conclusion, she believes that Edwards was one of the men who assaulted her.
“They did not get the wrong guy,” she said.
The attack is described in excruciating detail in handwritten investigator’s notes, supplemental police reports, applications for search warrants, interviews, arrest warrants, signed judicial orders and various other documents contained in an 1,100-page file compiled by a private investigators and defense lawyers throughout a years-long discovery process.
Reece, 48 in 2014, was found by Gary Redding, a cousin who’d come over the next day, about 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 28, when he couldn’t reach her by phone. She was in the shower sitting down, bruised and bloody; she made her way to a bed and collapsed. Redding called 911.
A few items, including jewelry, a television, Reece’s cellphone and an Xbox gaming system had been stolen. The white Nissan Murano that Reece drove, registered in the name of Roberto Webber, her longtime partner, was gone, too.
Reece had been suffocated with a plastic bag and brutally beaten. Doctors would testify later that she suffered a fractured skull, subdural hematoma, broken facial bones and a tremendous loss of blood.
Redding asked her if she knew what had happened to her. Detective Greg Dewitt recorded the answer in one of many supplemental reports he filed.
“When (the cousin) entered the bathroom, he states that Amy was in the shower and he could see that her eyes were black and there were contusions to her body,” Dewitt wrote. “He states that he asked Amy what happened to her and she replied by saying ‘Roberto.’”
Redding later said that he had misinterpreted Amy’s words, which were mumbled.
Reece was taken to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, and deputies processed the crime scene. They photographed blood spatter, seized articles of clothing, a broken, blood-stained walking stick and a hammer with hair and blood on it, while taking care to check for fingerprints and other potential DNA evidence.
Even without a statement, looking at Webber first made sense. Reece had taken out a restraining order against him alleging domestic violence and he was on probation following a stint in prison for assault with intent to kill, a felony.
And so detectives interviewed Webber and a man with whom he’d been living with since leaving the Boonville house he shared with Reece until March 2014.
Dewitt checked their stories and retraced their footsteps, going so far as to check lunch receipts and surveillance videotape from stores in Winston-Salem they said they visited.
It checked out. But there was one problem. The alibi was for the afternoon. That evening, Webber could only say that he’d been drinking, reading and then sleeping. “And that was unverified,” Cannon said.
An arrest warrant charging Webber with assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, inflicting serious injury was issued Aug. 28, one day after the attack.
Meanwhile, Reece, who’d been in the ICU since she’d been beaten, was beginning to come around.
Her sister, who’d come from out of town, started to ask questions. Do you know who did this to you?
When Reece, who is hearing impaired, answered with the aid of a dry erase board the afternoon of Aug. 31, 2014, her sister called authorities in Yadkin County.
“I spoke with (the sister) and she advised me that Amy could write today,” wrote detective Trent Shore in a report. “(She) stated that they asked Amy what had happened and she wrote down the name Allen.”
Reece, her sister told investigators, used sign language to say that Webber was not involved and to indicate that she had been assaulted by two men.
Additional questions led to the name Allen Vanderpoel, a native of South Africa. Reece and Vanderpoel’s wife attended the same high school and were acquaintances through working at a local flea market.
Vanderpoel and his wife had been to Reece’s house, too. And Reece previously had accused him of stealing from her — in particular a German Luger handgun that a family member later told detectives actually had been removed from Reece’s home for safekeeping.
Detectives went to the hospital to see what information they could glean for themselves.
“Detective Shore, (Reece’s sister) and I went to talk with Amy,” Dewitt wrote. “Amy attempted to write something on the dry erase board. It was not clear what Amy was writing. Amy wrote XBox and gun. I am not sure what Amy is trying to communicate.”
After letting her rest, detectives resumed the interview. “Amy had written out Allen Vanderpoel was the one who assaulted her and there was an unknown white male with him,” Dewitt wrote.
Webber, who had been arrested for the assault, was old news. The warrant sworn against him was withdrawn. Detectives had a new prime suspect and began to focus on Vanderpoel.
That same afternoon, Winston-Salem police found the white Murano in the parking lot in Bethabara Point Apartments and had it towed to an impound lot.
Investigators also were checking online records for any of the stolen jewelry and had come across something interesting. “Detective Shore also located pawn records for Allen Vander Poel (sic) where he pawned various jewelry to include a high school ring with the name ‘Amy’ inscribed on same,” wrote Lt. Kimberly Palmer in a supplemental report. “The school and year of graduation was verified by Detective Dewitt.”
Around that same time in mid-September 2014, detectives started looking hard at another person: Brandon Edwards, a young man who’d never been in trouble with the law before.
Vanderpoel had married Edwards’ mother Sabrina, and they all lived in the same mobile home park in King. Reece’s missing phone had been traced to a cell tower within a mile of that park before it shut off.
The Nissan Murano had been found within a few miles of the Target on University Parkway, where Edwards worked at the time. Circumstantial evidence piled up.
And there was one other thing: Reece’s relatives had conducted their own search of Vanderpoel’s social media — “stalking” is how Cannon characterized it — and found a photograph of Edwards online.
That, too, was shown to Reece — a single picture, rather than an array of photos, was shown by a relative to a victim who’d suffered a serious head injury. It was then that Reece first identified Edwards as the second attacker.
“The attempted murder of Amy, a physically disabled human being with no ability to defend herself … Allen Van der Poel, and (his wife’s) adult son, Brandon Edwards, whom Amy identified from photographs, knew they had to silence Amy forever because she was aware of what they were doing and was going to tell on them to the authorities …” Dewitt wrote, quoting from voice text messages sent to him Sept. 10 by Reece’s sister.
Photo lineups, even when conducted by experienced investigators, have been shown in other cases to be unreliable, however. So, too, have been eyewitness identifications which are frequently challenged by defense lawyers — especially when there is no other evidence offered in support.
Reece did pick Edwards out of a formal photo array in 2019, but a judge did not allow it to be used during the trial because too much time had passed since the attack.
“It is easier (to question witness identification) especially when there’s no corroborating evidence,” Cannon said. “But the jury is still seeing someone point the finger at your client. That’s compelling for jurors. Even if he’s innocent.”
These days, with advances in scientific-scene crime analysis, photo lineups and victim accounts amount to just two pieces of a larger puzzle. A strong case might include such things as fingerprints, DNA matches, cell phone location or electronic communication in the form of text messages, phone logs and social media posts.
None of those things were found to implicate Brandon Edwards; Reece and her family still maintain that fingerprints were found and lost by investigators in Yadkin County. Lawyers on both sides of the case said that didn’t happen.
And there is no mention of DNA matches or fingerprints anywhere in the 1,100 page file. No evidence of that sort was entered into the record at his trial.
“That’s why it’s so important for law enforcement to corroborate eyewitness accounts,” Cannon said. “A large majority of the wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA evidence are due to eyewitness identifications that turn out to be wrong.”
To that point, Cannon said she tried unsuccessfully to subpoena Dewitt so she could question him about that very thing.
Nevertheless, Edwards was arrested in Stokes County and taken to jail there.
“They said I was a suicide risk. They stripped me and put me in a paper gown for 48 hours,” Edwards said. “I didn’t realize I was even a suspect until they arrested me and put me in an SUV.”
Dewitt, Edwards said, jumped in and began rattling off questions. Have you ever owned a gun? Do you know who Amy Reece is? Where were you the night of Aug. 27?
Edwards answered, thinking that if he just told the truth, everything would be OK and he’d soon be released.
No, I’ve never owned a gun. Amy Reece is a friend of my mom’s. I was at work that night.
“I tried to work my way through it,” he said. “I thought, the way I was raised, if you follow the law and listen to the police, you’ll be fine.
“I was wrong.”
A long wait
Edwards was transferred to the Yadkin County Jail, given paperwork explaining the charges and arraigned.
It was then when the gravity of his situation began to hit. His family, including his mother, his grandparents and his girlfriend (now wife) knew he’d been arrested but not much else.
“I looked over everything (the paperwork) and tried to understand what was happening,” he said. “But I was thinking about (then girlfriend) Alicia mostly. I didn’t even know if she knew that I’d been moved. All I could think was, ‘Am I ever going to see her again?’”
In November, investigators sought (and obtained) warrants to get DNA samples from Vanderpoel and Edwards.
In a near panic, Edwards’ girlfriend initially contacted one lawyer who didn’t specialize in criminal defense. He was replaced by another who eventually had to withdraw when he ran into trouble with the N.C. State Bar over an unrelated matter. (“He did good work for me as far as I was concerned,” Edwards said.)
That lawyer successfully argued to have Edwards’ bond unsecured, meaning that all Edwards had to do to be released was sign paperwork saying that he (and his family) would be responsible financially if he failed to show for court. Basically he would be under house arrest until trial.
But in February 2016, his case took another turn. He and Vanderpoel were formally indicted by a Yadkin County grand jury and new charges including assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury were added. And the terms of his pre-trial release were changed.
His bond was reset at $700,000 and secured, which means he could not be released until or unless someone paid a bail bondsman 15 percent of the total and pledged to pay the entire amount, in cash or property, should he skip town.
Edwards would spend the next 10 months in the Yadkin County Jail until his bond was lowered to an amount his family could afford. His grandparents, Betty and Harold Edwards Sr., put up their house and much of their life’s savings to get him out. They also hired private investigator Tim Wooten, a retired deputy sheriff, who wound up working for free.
“I just decided to stay on the case pro Bono because I couldn’t see leaving the case knowing he was innocent,” Wooten wrote in an email. “I know how I would feel if I was in his place.”
Edwards will never forget the support. “I can never repay them for believing in me like that,” Edwards said. “They knew I didn’t have anything to do with this.”
With nothing left to do but await trial, he received permission to get a job and started to work. He wound up selling cellphones and proved to be a skillful salesman, earning promotions and increased responsibility despite the legal cloud over his head.
Vanderpoel, meanwhile, stayed in jail. He was arraigned on the new charges in June 2016 and agreed to a deal.
Two months later, in August, he entered what’s known as an Alford plea. That means he agreed to be sentenced because prosecutors had enough evidence to find him guilty even though a defendant doesn’t formally admit guilt.
The charges of attempted first-degree murder, felony assault on the handicapped and first degree kidnapping were dismissed. His Alford plea applied to assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury, assault inflicting serious injury, second-degree burglary and common-law robbery.
Vanderpoel received an active prison sentence of between 31 and 50 months — a far cry from the 20 years and 1 month he could have gotten — and ordered to pay $5,630 in restitution, court costs and attorney’s fees.
He also received credit for the 715 days he’d spent in the Yadkin County Jail, which effectively meant his prison time would be reduced by nearly two years. According to the N.C. Department of Correction, Vanderpoel was released from prison in August 2017 after serving 11 months. He was deported to South Africa.
Importantly for Edwards, attorney Cannon said, Vanderpoel didn’t implicate him. “Brandon never liked him,” she said. “He couldn’t stand him.”
With Vanderpoel out of the way, Edwards just had to wait for a trial date to be set. His lawyer subpoenaed video from Target that showed Edwards was at work until 10:30 the night of the attack.
Reece at some point had told investigators that the attack started while she was watching “America’s Got Talent” on television, which typically airs at 8 p.m.
“His lawyer is very wrong about the time when (America’s Got Talent) comes on,” Reece said.
Cannon points to videotape as crucial proof of his alibi.
“There he was on camera at work,” Cannon said. “We had his timesheets, too. At some point later on, (detectives) decided that (Reece) might have gotten the time wrong.”
Two months before the March 14 trial date, another strange thing happened. Reece and Webber came into the store where Edwards was working and bought a cellphone from him. Like most Americans over the winter, he was wearing a mask obscuring the bottom of his face.
“They had an hour long conversation with me and not one glimmer of recognition,” Edwards said. “I knew who she was.”
Reece, though, did not. “I didn’t know it was him,” she said.
Cannon got that videotape and introduced it at trial, too. She used both surveillance videos and put Edwards and his now wife on the witness stand.
In the state’s case, prosecutor Matthew Leach eventually took over the case. The first prosecutor, Brooke Webster, ran into trouble when he pleaded guilty to secret peeping — taking photos of young women in the Wake Forest University library — and had his law license suspended.
Leach wound up relying solely on Reece’s testimony and doctors who described the extent of her injuries.
No law-enforcement officers testified, which is very unusual. If a cop doesn’t show up for a traffic ticket, judges will typically dismiss it on the spot.
“Matthew did not have a lot to work with,” Redding allowed.
Dewitt retired from the sheriff’s office Jan. 1, 2018. Lt. Palmer retired in 2016. Efforts to reach them were unsuccessful. Sheriff Ricky Oliver, who’s in a competitive race to remain in office, did not return messages sent via email or voicemail.
After reviewing the case, Cannon asked prosecutors more than once to drop the charges. “They proceeded with a case with very little, or no, real evidence,” she said. “They kept telling me that they would let a jury decide.”
Leach said he did his duty and presented the best case he could.
“If he’s innocent, then the system worked,” Leach said. “He had a trial. The defense put on its best case. The state put on its best case. The jury considered it and found him not guilty.”
The jury’s verdict was resounding and deliberations exceptionally fast for such a serious case. “They couldn’t have been back there (deliberating) for more than 30 minutes,” Cannon said.
And as sometimes happens following a trial, Cannon was afforded the opportunity to speak to jurors. “They kept asking me, ‘What is the state going to do to compensate (Edwards)?’” she said.
With the passage of nearly four months since his acquittal, Edwards is still working through his thoughts and emotions.
“When I went back into jail I doubted that God existed,” he said. “This whole thing showed me that He does exist and my faith has been restored and is very strong.”
He said he was confident during his trial but never certain what might happen. He worried about missing his daughter’s childhood and purposefully maintained some emotional distance in case he was sent to prison.
He credits his wife Alicia for helping him remain steadfast; his voice broke with emotion when discussing what she’s meant to him.
“She’s my rock,” he said, wiping a tear from his eye. “I wouldn’t have blamed if she’d decided to walk away.”
Instead, the couple married and are eagerly looking forward to moving on with their lives. Still, his feelings about the situation run the gamut.
“I’ve been pissed off the whole time,” he said. “My other emotions depend really on when you ask. I’ve been hopeful and depressed. I struggled a lot.”
Reece, too, has struggled. She suffered from a terrible beating that has left permanent damage — physical and psychological.
“I have trouble with my balance,” she said. “I have headaches sometimes. I can’t smell and I can’t taste.”
She may never get over what happened to her and she still believes that Edwards was involved — despite a jury’s decision and evidence presented to the contrary.
“I was disappointed,” she said. “The (detectives) weren’t very good.”
As for Edwards, he initially wanted to look to the future instead of dwelling on the past.
But after a lot of soul-searching, he decided that he wanted to tell his story for anyone who would listen and help others who might be in the same position.
But before he walked inside a Winston-Salem coffee shop in July for an interview, Edwards stopped to take a phone call. He needed talk over his options with an attorney in Charlotte for filing a formal complaint.
“I haven’t decided anything yet,” he said. Later this summer, Edwards and his young family are moving hundreds of miles away with big plans for a fresh start.
Before they do, Edwards wants people to realize that anyone, anywhere can be ensnared in a similar nightmare.
“I want people to know this stuff happens,” he said. “It took just one person to say ‘He did this’ and it cost me seven years of my life.”
“Whatever he tells you happened to him, the reality is 10 times worse.”
Ashley Cannon, defense lawyer