Role of costume play, online videos questioned in fugitive case

Mother compared relationship of daughter, 44-year-old Springfield man to a cult.But investigation doesn’t indicate that any other minors have been victimized.

The Springfield man at the center of a recent large-scale manhunt and accused of fleeing with a 14-year-old girl portrays himself online to be a werewolf-like creature who recruits young women to be members of his “slayer covenant.”

The question is whether Mark Edwards — now facing charges in two separate cases of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor, interference with custody, fleeing and eluding and violating a protection order — was using the group as a way to groom young victims, or was simply taking part in an increasingly popular hobby.

“Certainly they were acting out a fantasy,” Clark County Sheriff Gene Kelly said about videos posted online nearly two years ago of Edwards, the 14-year-old girl and other women role-playing sword fights in costume.

“The guy made himself out to be a warrior,” Kelly said. “His attempt by posting these videos on YouTube was to reach a larger audience. He wanted to publicize his alter ego.”

But at this point in the investigation nothing indicates that any other minors have been victimized, Kelly said. Some of the women in the videos appear to be adults, and there are no sexual acts depicted. In one photo the teen girl can be seen sitting on Edward’s lap.

The girl’s mother, Tammy Bruce, likened the alleged relationship between her daughter and Edwards to being in a cult.

“It’s like her little brain has been drilled over and over and over that he loves her,” she said.

Edwards, now in custody at the Clark County Jail, has declined all interview requests.

But his friend RaMondo Brandon, who bumped into the wanted pair on Feb. 28 at a Springfield gas station and convinced them to surrender peacefully to deputies, said the 44-year-old’s interest in martial arts and fantasy are innocent hobbies.

“Just like I play chess,” Brandon said.

He said the relationship with the teen has to do with his desire to help her.

“He said he did it to save her … from a home situation,” Brandon said.

The sheriff’s office said there have been no accusations of abuse made by the girl or other family members. “If that was alleged then we would certainly investigate it,” Kelly said.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation confiscated computers from Edwards’ McCreight Avenue home while serving a search warrant Feb. 27. Kelly said those computers will be analyzed for any evidence of criminal activity.

Family friendship

It’s believed the relationship between the pair grew out of a family friendship while they were neighbors.

Edwards used to go fishing with her mother while the families lived around the corner from one another and their daughters became good friends. Kelly said the sexual relationship began when the girl would go for sleepovers at the Edwards’ residence.

According to a Springfield Police Division report filed in September, the girl told her mother that the two had engaged in sexual intercourse repeatedly at his home between April and August 2013. The photo shoot in which they appear together in costume was posted online in September 2012.

Two days after Tammy Bruce reported that alleged activity to police in September 2013, Edwards is accused of attempting to run away with the teen. An AMBER alert was issued and they were located in an SUV pulled over on Ohio 41.

A protection order was put in place against Edwards and he was indicted on charges of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor.

The teen started a homeschooling program after reportedly being bullied, and Kelly said it appears she continued to communicate with Edwards online.

The Slayer Covenant

On Facebook, Edwards goes by the alias Nagamishe Shiro. His profile includes numerous posts and notes about what he called the Slayer Covenant, “A world wide secret organization of Werewolves, Vampires, Werecats or Hell cats, and Hybrid humans that work together to protect the human race from the evil of demons and other evil vampires or werewolves.”

He says the group works like a Jedi order, referencing the Star Wars franchise, “training young slayers that show remarkable powers and recruiting any new slayers.”

His notes don’t give any specific instructions, or indicate the group does anything other than werewolf and vampire role-playing. He encourages anyone interested to get in touch with him and provides an AOL email address.

In a recent February post, with his trial for unlawful sexual conduct looming, Edwards writes he was, “hoping just to make it to this coming summer.” He would be looking for people to be cosplay slayers, he writes, but specified, “Please 18 and up.”

Cosplay, a hybrid term for costumed role-playing, is a popular hobby for adults and youth all over the world. In general, cosplayers dress up as characters from comic books, video games, Japanese anime or movies and act out existing or newly made up scenes.

Popular cosplay websites such as feature hundreds of thousands of user-generated photos, videos and discussion forums, with posts often seeking individuals with similar interests to participate in groups and skits together.

Cosplay contests are a mainstay of comic book conventions that have become a multimillion dollar boon for cities like San Diego. The cable network Syfy features a docu-series called “Heroes of Cosplay” that follows, “legends and newbies” on their quest for notoriety.

The girl’s stepmother, Denise Bruce, said she was aware of some photos of the girl dressed in costume posted on Facebook in 2012, but said to her knowledge the teen was not a big cosplay enthusiast.

“That was very odd for (her) to do something like that,” she said. Until the photos appeared on the news during the manhunt, Denise Bruce said she was unaware that Edwards was even in the photos.

“I actually thought it was of her and her girlfriends,” she said. “It’s a real change from when she was younger.”

Dennis Marikis is a clinical psychologist working in Mansfield and Mount Vernon, Ohio, who specializes in working with adult and child victims of cults. He said role-playing games themselves are generally innocuous, but can easily take on a controlling facet for people who invest in the characters.

“Some of those situations can be dramatically influential to a certain degree,” he said.

The age difference between the suspect and the girl is the most alarming part of their relationship, Marikis said, and the main factor compounding her vulnerability and possibly a susceptibility to being controlled.

“If they were both 44 and doing this,” Marikis said it would not be of much concern. “That’s an awfully significant difference relative to maturity level.”

Kelly said the relationship has the markings of predator preying on the vulnerability of a child.

“It all fits the profile of a perpetrator who has groomed a victim. The victim is submitting and compliant and it turns into love,” Kelly said.

‘No danger to her’

Although he wears a menacing werewolf mask and fangs while wielding spears, swords and firearms in his self-made montages posted online, those that know Mark Edwards insist he’s not a violent individual.

Brandon, a self-defense instructor who trained with Edwards in the past, said he was shocked back in September when he learned his friend had been arrested. The second time around he worried that the depiction of Edwards as, “armed and dangerous,” could lead to a confrontation with law enforcement where someone might get hurt.

“There was no danger to her from him,” Brandon said.

Edwards is skilled in martial arts and trained in weaponry, Brandon said, but would never use those skills against anyone unnecessarily.

Edwards previously hadn’t been accused of any violent acts. A Springfield Police incident report about a disturbance at his home from January 2013 noted the presence of knives and swords in the home, but the civil matter was settled peacefully and no police report was required.

At one point he worked at the Upper Valley Mall as a security guard and filmed videos of himself there in costume after hours. Mall representatives previously declined to comment and didn’t release how or when his employment there ended.

He also worked as an animal trapper, kept a pet alligator and snakes for a time and told the Springfield News-Sun in 2012 that he had an encounter with Bigfoot near the C.J. Brown Reservoir.

“What he does is animal rescue. If you have snakes in your basement, he’ll get them out,” Brandon said.

In one of the videos on his YouTube channel, the avid hunter can be seen with what appears to be a coyote he has shot with an arrow. He then includes images of himself covered in blood and apparently eating a raw animal.

In some of the images a fake human head is included in the shot, so it appears as if Edwards is eating a human body.

During the search of his home last week, Kelly said deputies discovered a freezer full of animal carcasses. The sheriff said there doesn’t appear to be any evidence of animal cruelty and the animal remains could be from legal hunting activities.

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