FourFront Productions
March 27, 2015 07:20 PM

The California friends who attended the North Carolina mountain wedding last October of Cristie Schoen and J.T. Codd marveled at the rural spot the couple had chosen to live out their dreams: a small, simple house on 36 acres, stretching from a valley to a wooded mountaintop, where the pair envisioned a self-sustaining hydroponics farm and room for their family to grow.

“She found the fresh water spring, the big oaks, the beautiful apple and pear trees, the blueberry bushes, fresh grapes – she just had to have it,” Dirk Long, Cristie’s partner in a movie-set catering company and a former boyfriend, tells PEOPLE.

Adds Perry Sachs, a writer-director and longtime friend of J.T.’s: “It’s a place that other people would probably say wasn’t remarkable, but he was making it remarkable, because that’s what he did with everything.”

But something else at the wedding – celebrated under a white tent at a community center about 15 minutes outside of Asheville – stuck out for those guests: a couple of the local characters, and one in particular, Robert Jason Owens, a down-on-his-luck handyman the couple had hired to help out.

“I remember them just being kind of weird, just not being the kind of people that you would find around J.T. and Christie,” says Sachs. Another friend of the couple, Michael Mendez, says of Owens: “There was a gut feeling when I looked at this guy, and I avoided him. This was one person I definitely did not want to meet.”

Now Owens, 37, is in custody, charged with the murders of the couple and their unborn child, after which police say he stored and destroyed the bodies.

When Owens’s name and photo surfaced as the suspect, “the moment I saw him,” says Mendez, “I just got the chills.” [IMAGE “1” “” “std” ]

Cristie, 38, and J.T., 45, both were known for their easy generosity.

For Cristie – who competed in a 2012 season of the cooking show Food Network Star – it was rooted in the friendship and warmth celebrated around meals. Raised in Biloxi, Mississippi, she embraced the Southern and Cajun-style recipes of her family and region, and loved to feed a crowd. After finishing college in Louisiana she moved to California, where she and Long lived for a time in a one-bedroom Marina del Ray apartment that lacked a kitchen, with Cristie setting up a barbecue outside.

“She would cook for everybody walking up and down that boardwalk off of that barbecue – the homeless guys, everybody,” says Long.

J.T., too, was non-judgmental with a helping hand. He lived homeless for a time just for the experience. “J.T. was an advocate for every underdog,” says Lynne Mishele, who grew up with him in Gaithersburg, Maryland, before both relocated to Venice Beach, California. “He really took everybody under his wing who other people weren’t willing to give a second look to.”

Says Sachs: “He was the mayor of Venice, basically. He would invite guys who had no place to live into his house to shower. That’s the kind of guy he is. Every single person he touched was better for it.”

In California, J.T. found work on TV and film productions as a behind-the-scenes grip, then spent his money between jobs on backpack travels to places such as Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Thailand. An aspiring actress, Cristie surprised many with her affinity, drawn from her youth, for hunting and fishing, which she tied into her advocacy for healthy, off-the-land eating.

After coming together as friends, their compassionate, outdoorsy and adventurous spirits merged.

“Neither one of them were lacking anything,” says Sachs. “They were both people who probably could have just been on their own for the rest of their life and been fine. But they happened to find each other, and realize they were perfect for each other. I think Cristie, just maybe, reminded J.T. that there were people in the world who were just purely good.”

With jobs that took them everywhere, they found and embraced their slice of North Carolina as a small-town haven to plant roots, build their farm, and work toward opening a farm-to-table caf . The post-wedding news that they’d become pregnant – an ultrasound revealed a girl, due in July, and they picked the name Skylar – further anchored their dream.

“Knowing that they were going to bring a child into the world, we all shared the same excitement, knowing how incredibly lucky this kid was going to be,” says Julia Sachs, Perry’s wife.

James Fernandez, a film and TV set decorator and friend of the couple, says: “J.T. would have made an amazing father. It’s funny how J.T., amongst all these friends, was the only one who was making his dreams come true.”

Yet even with the shared goal, “they were both very hard-headed,” says Long. “Cristie always sort of kept him in line. ‘Cause J.T. would say, ‘We’re going to do this,’ and Cristie would say, ‘No, we’re going to do this.’ ‘Cause Cristie was always organized, and J.T. was always messy.”

In their rural hamlet of Leicester, J.T.’s search for helping hands found Owens, who was “out of work,” says Mendez. “He became sort of like a handyman-helper.”

Owens worked to clear trees and build a well house for the couple, who gave him about $7,000 to set him up in business, says Long. They also gave Owens a key to their storage shed and tools – a leap of trust that Long, concerned, soon questioned.

“J.T. was always trying to help the guy who was down on his luck,” says Long, who told the couple, “You can’t do that in the mountains of western North Carolina.” Indeed, Long says, as J.T. gave out work and money, people came around looking for more, which began to cause Cristie alarm.

“One guy came by one time trying to sell an M-16, or whatever it is,” he says. “And then another guy came by and wanted some cash for gas, and J.T. said he would go fill up his tank the next day, but that was going to be it. So it was always that – ‘Come to J.T. for money.’ J.T. was like the ATM of the mountains.”

“J.T. didn’t care about giving out the money,” he says. “That’s why Cristie was always flustered. He would have the mentally, ‘Don’t live in fear.’ ”

Cristie’s response to him: “You’re crazy.”

Says Long: “She didn’t want those guys coming up to the house. She didn’t want to be there by herself. She had three guns, so she wasn’t that scared. But she was scared after these people had come around; she wasn’t scared of the mountains, but she was a little scared of the monster J.T. had created.”

Authorities have not released a motive for the murders of the couple, who were reported missing March 15 after family members couldn’t reach them. But after a caller reported “suspicious” dumping that night of items in a trash container that would turn out to include Cristie’s ID, they followed a trail to Owens, who admitted to taking the recovered items. A later search of Owens’s property turned up what police say they believe to be human remains.

In a warrant, police say Owens told his wife “that he was driving the 2008 Dodge Ram that belonged to the victim when he struck and killed the male victim” on the Codds’s property. Cristie’s cause of death was not released.

In addition to the murders, Owens – who has not yet entered a plea – also is charged with breaking and entering and larceny. Friends wonder about the possibility of robbery, or a demand for more money that was turned down by the couple.

And they agonize over their mistrust of the man they saw at their friends’ wedding, and what they might have done to save them.

Fernandez recalls an incident during a bonfire on the couple’s property after the wedding. “I was talking to Cristie, and as I’m talking to her, I see this guy who’s kneeling down, about to tackle something,” he says. The man – Owens – lept and pulled down another man by his feet, causing Fernandez to run over to him.

“I screamed at him, ‘This is not that kind of party!’ As he was getting up, he goes to swing at me. I used his momentum to push him down to the ground, and I just held him down. His buddy came over. These two guys, I think, were peas in a pod,” he says. “His partner helped him up and walked him off the property. He wanted to fight me, but I think his partner was a little bit bigger than him and put him in his place.”

“I told J.T. afterwards, and he just kind of shrugged it off. ‘They work for me; things happen.’ He’s very forgiving in every situation. If J.T. said it was okay, it’s okay. I just let it go,” he says.

In hindsight, Fernandez has reconsidered. While others were willing to dismiss it as a pair of locals drunk at the end of a long day of partying, “The Sunday after we realized they were missing, I called the detective and told him about that confrontation.”

“I wish I could have done something then,” says Fernandez. Of his friends, he adds, “They’re not really judgmental of people. They have so much love of everyone.”

“That’s probably why it happened.”

For more on the case, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now

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