Seward murder victim beaten for seven minutes with baseball bat, according to suspect

Preston Atwood (Photo from Seward Police)
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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Suspects in the murder of Preston Atwood in Seward tried to lure the 21-year-old to an isolated area using a juvenile girl, according to charging documents filed in Seward on November 27.

Police interviews and digital evidence gathered from the suspects’ cell phones and social media painted a narrative that began on August 24, just a day before the murder.

That’s when James Helberg, one of the suspects, convinced a juvenile to contact Atwood. “Ask him out of town,” wrote Helberg, "Lead him on.” Helberg justified it to the girl by saying that Atwood was a child molester, court documents say.

But when the girl contacted Atwood, Atwood asked her how old she was. When she told him that she was 17 Atwood ended the conversation, according to Facebook records obtained by police.

That same day, Laurel Correa, now accused of murder in the case, friended Atwood on Facebook and messaged him asking “Wanna hang out sometime?” and “Oh hey I have a truck btw if u want to go do something?” Atwood responded that he did want to hang out.

The next evening, August 25, Correa arranged to pick up Atwood from the AVTEC gym in downtown Seward, and video footage showed Atwood getting in the vehicle on crutches with a white T-shirt, red shorts and black sandals.

Video and cellphone evidence obtained by police investigators corroborated that the two drove to 4th of July Beach, a few miles down Nash Road east of Seward, where they parked.

An interview with James Helberg provides a story of what happened next. After Atwood and Correa arrived, Helberg, along with Timothy Ryan, Jennifer Harren (Ryan’s mother), and Tyler Goddard, parked shortly behind him and “confronted” Atwood while he was in the front seat of Correa’s car. Just before that, Correa told investigators that Atwood was “inappropriate” with her and touched her leg.

The six then walked down a trail to the beach and hung out, talking and smoking marijuana, according to Helberg and Goddard’s accounts. Ryan even offered Atwood a sweatshirt, according to Helberg.

Helberg says at some point all of them started walking back to the trail toward Correa’s vehicle as Helberg and Correa lagged behind. At that point, the two heard a loud crack “like a baseball bat hitting a hard object.” Helberg said it was followed by what “sounded like someone trying to cry out or scream.”

Instead of going to the scene, Helberg says he first walked Correa back to her car and only then went back down the trail. When he arrived at the scene, he saw Ryan standing with one of his feet on Atwood’s neck while he batted Atwood in the “neck, ribs, and groin with a black wooden baseball bat.” Helberg said this lasted for seven minutes and ended only when Atwood stopped moving. Helberg told investigators he thought that Atwood was dead.

The State Medical Examiner’s investigation on Sept. 3 corroborated the nature of the injuries, finding extensive injuries to the neck muscle, and a likely fractured hyoid as well as blunt force injury to the genitalia. His death was caused by a blunt force trauma to the head, according to the medical examiner.

Tyler Goddard, another suspect in the murder, told a similar story, though his story casts Helberg in a different light. Goddard said that he was at Correa’s car back on the road when they heard a crack coming from the trail. He said two or three minutes later, Helberg and Correa arrived. At that point, Helberg told Goddard and Correa to leave while Helberg headed back out on the trail. Meanwhile, Harren, Ryan’s mother, claimed that she had never seen anybody on the scene on crutches or Preston Atwood, but Helberg said that she stood next to Ryan the entire time. Helberg also claimed that Goddard was at the scene of the beating as well.

Hiding the body
Helberg’s account of hiding the body matches up with physical evidence as well, though there are inconsistencies with his own role.

Helberg said that after the beating, he and Ryan tried to put Atwood's body directly in their Dodge Durango, but since another car was parked nearby, they used a rope and moved the body into the tree line. Helberg said Ryan went and buried Atwood’s crutches and the baseball bat used in the beating at the beach.

After a few stops - including for some whiskey at Safeway - Goddard, Harren, Ryan and Helberg stopped at the Salmon Creek Trailer Park, where Harren lived, to drop off their cell phones. They then returned to the beach and lined the back of their Durango with a blanket. They put Atwood’s body on the blanket and covered it with a tarp.

Helberg says they took the body towards Trail Lake, where they wanted to dump the body. When they arrived, they saw another vehicle, so decided to try a different spot. At Mile 9 of the Seward Highway, they drove a short way up the powerline and dragged the body a short distance from the trail and hid it under some branches.

The suspects then returned to Ryan’s residence, arriving at around 4 a.m. on August 26.

Cooperation and obstruction

On August 29, four days after Atwood’s death, a police sergeant took Helberg to the site where the body had been hidden. Helberg showed him the body, and then went with the sergeant to 4th of July beach and showed him the approximate location where the crutches and bat were buried.

Court documents don’t reveal exactly when Helberg decided to cooperate with police, but Helberg told investigators in an interview that “at some point” he talked to Ryan about confessing to the murder, but in response, Ryan “punched him in the face with a left hook that cracked one of his teeth.”

Evidence about the crime was also obtained from the girl who Helberg had originally instructed to try to lure Atwood. The girl told police that Helberg had asked her to delete the messages between them shortly after the murder allegedly took place.

On August 30, the girl reached out to Correa to ask about rumors about the murder. Correa responded with the texts, “Tell everyone you don’t know anything and to leave it alone. Delete the messages.”

Correa’s cell phone was eventually searched by investigators, showing that she searched Atwood’s name multiple times after the murder. In a message from Correa’s mother, her mother writes “I don’t think the police will bother you much because of who ever called in will be able to tell them it was three guys not any girls. Thank God.” Correa replied, “Yes.” A day later, Correa searched “How to recover after witnessing a murder,” on YouTube.

Now, the four involved are accused of murder as well as charges of manslaughter, assault, conspiracy and tampering. Ryan's warrant also included a charge of tampering with a witness. Ryan, Goddard, Correa and Harren are all in custody on $500,000 bail.

Goddard’s mother Melanie Goddard was also arrested and charged with tampering with a witness.

Pre-indictment hearings are scheduled for Dec. 9.

Channel 2 reporters reached out to Brooke Andrews, Atwood's aunt, who said this update in the investigation marks the end of a stressful waiting period for the entire community. However, she said she and other family members know it's the beginning of an even longer process of seeking justice for her nephew.

"There definitely is relief," she said, "but this is the beginning of a long journey. This is definitely not over."

She went on to say that the small town of Seward appeared on edge since Atwood's body was found almost 100 days ago. Andrews said it was hard to see the suspects out in public at places like grocery stores and other areas where those accused would be seen out and about.

Andrews said her family is grateful to the Seward Police Department for getting them in custody. However, she does wish it happened sooner, and said she wishes that the police kept the family and community better informed on the investigation.

"It was terrifying for the family of course but terrifying also for the community," Andrews said, "there is a way that PR and our police chief could have comforted and could have kept our community updated and not had the panic and hysteria in our community that went on."

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