Seward murder victim on crutches was beaten to death with a baseball bat
During a late August walk along Seward's Fourth of July Beach, as it's called by locals, Preston Atwood wasn't dressed for the weather.
He was wearing a T-shirt and sandals and was cold, so someone in the group he was with gave him a black sweatshirt to wear with a Fat Tops logo on the front.
Minutes later, the same person who loaned Atwood the sweatshirt off of his back is accused of beating him to death with a baseball bat, as others in the group watched or walked away.
Now, six people are charged in connection with the assault and murder of the 21-year-old: Timothy Ryan, 24; James Helberg, 18; Tyler Goddard, 19; Laurel Correa, 19; Jennifer Harren, 45; and Melanie Goddard, 39, who is the only suspect not facing murder charges.
Goddard faces a single charge of tampering with a witness, while the others faces several felony charges including murder, conspiracy to commit murder, assault, conspiracy to commit assault and evidence tampering.
Five accounts of a fatal beating
According to a 12-page criminal affidavit filed in the case, Atwood's mother reported him missing on Aug. 27 after she had not seen him since Aug. 25. She told police he was recovering from a broken leg, using crutches and did not have his wallet or phone on him.
A check of his Kindle revealed he had exchanged Facebook messages with Laurel Correa and the two had agreed to meet up.
In an interview with Seward police on Aug. 29, Correa said she picked Atwood up on Aug. 25 and hung out with him for half an hour at Fourth of July Beach, but kicked him out of her vehicle and drove away after she said he had been inappropriate with her by touching her leg.
According to the affidavit written by Seward Police Department Sgt. Karl Schaefermeyer, Correa then said she picked up her boyfriend, James Helberg, and they drove to her father's home in Moose Pass.
The affidavit details information police learned from three separate interviews with Helberg, on Aug. 29, 31 and Sept. 26. Helberg told police that his girlfriend, Correa, texted him that she was with Atwood near the beach and "she was scared of him because he was making unwanted sexual advances towards her."
Helberg said he rode with Timothy Ryan, Jennifer Harren — who is Ryan's mother — and Tyler Goddard to the beach in Harren's 2013 white Dodge Durango. Helberg told police the group believed Atwood had sexually assaulted a girl in high school and they wanted to "confront" him and "teach him a lesson."
According to Helberg's account, the group met Correa and Atwood in Correa's truck and all of them walked along the beach. Ryan gave Atwood his sweatshirt. They talked and smoked marijuana. As they headed back toward the vehicles, Helberg heard a loud crack and someone trying to scream.
"Helberg walked Correa back to her vehicle before going back down the trail to try to intervene and observed P. Atwood lying on the ground. Ryan was standing over P. Atwood with one of his feet on P. Atwood's neck while Ryan repeatedly hit P. Atwood in the neck, ribs, and groin with a black wooden baseball bat. Helberg stated Ryan would not stop even after Helberg pleaded with him to and the assault lasted for seven minutes. The assault ended when P. Atwood stopped moving. Helberg said he thought P. Atwood was dead."
Helberg allegedly told police that Goddard stood next to Ryan during the entire ordeal, but did not take part in the beating, and that Harren had stood next to her son as he began beating Atwood, but walked away before he stopped.
Ryan declined to speak with police and requested to have an attorney present, according to the affidavit.
Tyler Goddard allegedly corroborated the beginning of Helberg's account but told police he walked to Correa's vehicle before hearing a loud crack coming from the trail, then was dropped off at home. He said he didn't know anything else until he learned through news reports that Atwood's body had been found.
Harren said she was with Ryan, Goddard and Helberg when they went to the beach where they saw Correa, but that she never saw Atwood or anyone with crutches.
Covering up the crime
Helberg is the only suspect who discussed a second crime scene with police, according to the affidavit. He told officers he and Ryan attempted to place Atwood's body in Harren's vehicle, but another car had been parked nearby. Instead, they moved Atwood's body into nearby trees using rope, then Ryan allegedly buried Atwood's crutches and the murder weapon along the beach.
He said he rode with Ryan and Harren and the three dropped Goddard off, then went to Safeway where they bought R&R and other items. Then they went back to the Salmon Creek Trailer park to get a blanket and a tarp and waited for it to get dark.
The trio allegedly left their cell phones at the trailer park when they returned to the beach to pick up Atwood's body, then returned to the trailer park to pick up their phones before going to dispose of the body.
They wanted to do so at the bridge of the southern end of Trail Lake, but could not due to the presence of another vehicle, according to Helberg. They ended up going to the power line trail at Mile 9 of the Seward Highway. Harren allegedly held a flashlight as Ryan and Helberg placed Atwood's body in some branches off of the trail.
Ryan took his sweatshirt back, according to Helberg.
In the hours and days after the murder, the suspects allegedly attempted to delete their digital footprints, according to the results of forensic analysis of their cell phones included in the affidavit.
Ryan allegedly deleted Facebook conversations with Helberg from Aug. 21-28 and records showing he tried to call Atwood via Facebood Messenger on Aug, 24. Facebook records from his account — revealed to SPD through a warrant — show he searched for Atwood's Facebook account on Aug. 18 and again on Aug. 24. In an Aug. 21 message to Tyler Goddard, Ryan allegedly wrote, "Daddy is gonna teach this boy a lesson," and Goddard replied, "Yeas."
Records police obtained from Correa's phone and Facebook account show she accepted a friend request from Atwood on the day of the murder then removed him as a friend and blocked him hours later. In the days following the killing, she deactivated and reactivated her Facebook account and searched Atwood's name multiple times. She also searched for "missing people," "Seeking Alaska's Missing," and viewed Atwood's sister's Facebook account multiple times.
In a Facebook message exchange with her mother on Aug. 28, Correa allegedly wrote, "Yes I found out more about him. He is a complete sexual assaulter and a rapist that has ripped basically the hole town off at some point. Theres a huge post of facebook from last year about all these girls confessing their experiences with him and it's all bad."
On Aug. 30, Correa's phone records show a text from her mother asking, "How did they know you were out there?"
Correa replied, "I have no idea."
Her mother also advised her not to talk to police and to request an attorney if questioned.
Correa cleared her Facebook search history several times, according to the affidavit. She also viewed news articles about Atwood's disappearance and the discovery of his body. On Aug. 31, her phone's web history shows a Youtube search for "How to recover after witnessing a murder."
According to Helberg's Facebook records, he searched for Atwood's account on Aug. 27, as well as Atwood's sister's profile. In Facebook messages on Aug. 28 and 30, he denied being involved with the murder.
Records from Harren's Facebook account included in the affidavit show she searched for Atwood's profile on Aug. 26 and 27. Then on Sept. 1, she allegedly told a friend through Facebook messages that she and Ryan were being implicated in a murder and being set up by Helberg and Goddard.
According to the affidavit, cell phone location data place Ryan, Helberg, Harren and Correa at Fourth of July Beach together from 8:33 p.m. to 9:32 p.m. on the day of the murder. The data also place Helberg, Ryan and Harren in the area of Mile 9 of the Seward Highway from 12:56 a.m. through 1:48 a.m. on Aug. 26.
A failed setup
A juvenile identified in the affidavit by the initials A.S. told police Helberg reached out to her on Aug. 24 — the day before the murder — asking her to try to meet up with Atwood.
According to A.S.'s phone records, Helberg texted:
- "Ask him out of town"
- "Meet you at bear lake say your with timmy and hames"
- "Lead him on"
- "This convo don't leave us?"
The affidavit says Helberg told A.S. he believed Atwood was a "child molester" and he was "just going to have a talk" with him, but A.S. told police Atwood immediately asked her how old she is when she messaged him through Facebook and stopped speaking to her once he learned she is only 17.
According to the phone records, A.S. texted Correa on Aug. 30, "asking about the rumor she heard about Helberg and T. Goddard baiting P. Atwood. Correa responded, 'Tell everyone you don't know anything and leave it alone. Delete the messages. None of that's true.'"
Cause of death
Fragments of Atwood's crutches were found along the beach between Aug. 31 and Sept. 2, according to the affidavit. A black wooden baseball bat, believed to be the murder weapon, was recovered on Sept. 1.
According to the State Medical Examiner's Office, Atwood's death was caused by blunt force trauma to the head. He also suffered extensive injuries to the neck and groin.
'How could you?'
News of arrests in the case brought long awaited relief to Atwood's family.
"We were really shocked that it was actually happening," said Brook Andrews, Atwood's aunt.
Andrews addressed the case publicly at a Seward City Council meeting on Oct. 28.
"Sixty-four days without arrests makes murderers drive around like rock stars, just living their lives every day," she said, adding tearfully, "while we, as the family of Preston, struggle to go to the grocery store."
Friday, Andrews said she is "extremely grateful" to Seward police for their work on the case. She also said it was disheartening to receive confirmation that so many people were allegedly involved, calling the allegations in the affidavit "mind blowing."
"How could you?" she questioned.
As for the group's alleged motive — allegations against Atwood's character — Andrews said she never saw a predatory side of Atwood and noted he had not been charged with any sexual crimes.
"I wish I could speak to it," she said. "I wish I could ask him. But he’s not here to tell us. He’s not here to defend himself, nor will he ever be. We’ll never know."
Thanksgiving was the family's first holiday without Atwood, but Andrews knows more difficult days are ahead.
A solid case
In the three months from when Atwood was killed to the filing of charges just before Thanksgiving, Seward police faced intense scrutiny and public pressure as rumors swirled and many community members believed they knew the identities of the killers.
Initially, SPD declined to describe the nature of its investigation into Atwood's death. It wasn't until Sept. 19 that the department alerted the community the case had been classified as a homicide through a post on its Facebook page.
On Oct. 23, Seward Police Chief Tom Clemons said he had turned over information to the Kenai District Attorney's Office.
In an interview Friday, Clemons praised the work of his department, noting every officer had contributed to the investigation. He said more than 1,500 hours went into solving the case.
"It was absolutely imperative that this case be done perfect. It was absolutely imperative that we got in as much evidence as we possibly can before we turn it over to the district attorney or before we actually made arrests," he said. "Our United States Constitution guarantees a right to a speedy trial, and in the state of Alaska we have 120 days to get someone to court once we place you under arrest, so we decided not to start the clock. We knew there’d be hours and hours of investigation to get all the facts straight so we’d have a good solid perfect case, which is now what we have."
In response to criticism from Andrews and others over a lack of communication with the community, Clemons said he didn't feel he could share more without jeopardizing the case.
"I take responsibility for that," he said, "but it was the right choice."
He said once SPD announced arrests in the case, he felt an immediate shift in the atmosphere around Seward.
"Especially after yesterday. Going through the grocery store, not one person didn’t stop me to thank us for the job that we did," he said, adding a thank you to citizens of Seward for patience and support during the investigation.
While the majority of the investigation is done, Clemons said there will be more work for his department as the case progresses through the court system.
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