CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Over the past few weeks, people in this tight-knit university community have not seen much of John Edwards.
They used to. He would hang out on a metal stool at Bowbarr, a short walk from the environmentally friendly condominium complex where he moved after details of an extramarital affair sent him from the family home.
He would swing into Crook’s Corner, a legendary Southern restaurant, for an order of fried oysters to go, talking to anyone around and looking like the polished but approachable Democratic presidential candidate he once was.
After his estranged wife, Elizabeth Edwards, died of cancer in early December, the chef at Crook’s Corner, Bill Smith, would slip in an extra dessert for their children.
“We all just feel for him, no matter what he’s done,” Mr. Smith said. “And you know there is more to come.”
That “more” is the possibility that a federal grand jury in Raleigh could soon hand up an indictment against him in a case centering on campaign finance practices.
One issue is whether Mr. Edwards knew that some of the millions of dollars given by at least two wealthy donors was being used to help support — and hide, some contend — Rielle Hunter, the campaign videographer with whom he had a prolonged affair, and the daughter they conceived.
The money used to support Ms. Hunter could be considered campaign contributions if prosecutors can show that Mr. Edwards helped orchestrate donations for that purpose, or that he knew the money would be used to keep the affair hidden so it would not hurt his 2008 presidential candidacy.
George Holding, the United States attorney in Raleigh, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, as well as a Justice Department lawyer and agents from the F.B.I. and the Internal Revenue Service are looking at a number of campaign accounts and the records of a nonprofit group connected to Mr. Edwards, according to people who have been subpoenaed and others who have knowledge of the case.
“They have the bank records for all the accounts, and they have been through them,” said Joe Sinsheimer, a former Democratic political strategist who has become a respected political watchdog in Raleigh. “Part of it is this whole financial maze.” Mr. Sinsheimer has not been subpoenaed.
Those who have been subpoenaed include dozens of former campaign workers, top aides, friends and Ms. Hunter. Investigators have also interviewed Rachel Mellon, 100, a reclusive banking heiress known as Bunny who may have given as much as $6 million to the Edwards operation, and several of her relatives.
A highly placed former campaign worker who testified late last fall said in an interview that he was pressed about Mr. Edwards’s understanding of the campaign’s finances and was asked “lots of questions about sex.”
Wade Smith, a lawyer for Mr. Edwards, did not return calls requesting an interview. But he has publicly denied any wrongdoing by his client.
Keeping track of who walks in and out of the courthouse and the number of subpoenas issued has become a popular pastime. The subpoenas have piled up to such a degree that they have become the subject of jokes about insider status in certain circles.
“I’m still waiting for mine — I feel like a nobody,” said Bill Ferris, a history professor at the University of North Carolina who was part of a literary event last weekend where the subject of Mr. Edwards made for easy conversation.
Although a recent increase in testimony has fueled talk that an indictment might be coming soon, such speculation has risen and fallen during the nearly two years the grand jury has been investigating.
The Justice Department does not comment on pending investigations, and it is certainly possible that no charges will be filed or that the charges will be misdemeanors.
Campaign finance cases are difficult to prosecute. Money flows in and out of a number of accounts with speed and fluidity, and several people can be responsible for various parts of financing a single political race. And in this case, there appears to be no single, specific event for prosecutors to hang a case on.
“They are going to throw the whole sordid story out there and let it stand as whole,” Mr. Sinsheimer said.
Mr. Edwards also is tangled in a civil suit brought by Ms. Hunter against Andrew Young, the campaign worker who once covered for his boss by claiming paternity of the couple’s child. He later turned on Mr. Edwards and wrote a tell-all book.
Ms. Hunter is trying to get back a video reportedly showing her and Mr. Edwards having sex and other photographs of Mr. Edwards and the couple’s daughter, Frances Quinn. She claims that Mr. Young took them from belongings she left behind in a house he was renting and used them to help secure media deals.
Mr. Edwards testified in a deposition for that case in February, according to published reports. The trial was scheduled to start on Monday but has been postponed until October. The judge in the case, Carl R. Fox of North Carolina Superior Court, has told witnesses for both sides that if they discuss the case with the press, they could be jailed for contempt.
If Mr. Edwards is charged in the federal case, he could take a number of tacks, say people connected to the case. Striking a deal might be the best option if the charges are misdemeanors. If he faces felony charges, many believe that Mr. Edwards, known as an exceptionally good trial lawyer who is protective of his law degree, would fight them.
But that could be even more damaging to his reputation.
“If it went to trial, the portrait of John Edwards that America has today would be way worse,” Mr. Sinsheimer said.
While Mr. Edwards waits for word from the grand jury, he has moved back into the family house on a 102-acre compound just south of Chapel Hill. Family friends say he is busy learning how to be a single parent to his younger children, Emma Claire, 12, and Jack, 10, and is working on causes important to the family, including the Wade Edwards Foundation, which finances a free after-school learning lab for high school students.
It was created to honor Mr. and Mrs. Edwards’s eldest child, who was killed in a car accident as a teenager in 1996. Mr. Edwards is the board chairman, and his eldest daughter, Catharine, 28, is a member. She is also in charge of her mother’s trust, according to a five-page will. In it, Mrs. Edwards did not mention Mr. Edwards.
For their part, Chapel Hill residents who have watched the spectacular rise and fall of their neighbor are struggling to bring him back into the fold.
“This is a very open town,” said Katharine Walton, who moved to Chapel Hill in 1994. “People understand human nature and the foibles and the fall. They are not that judgmental at all. But it is still hard to reconcile what he did.”
The Snooper Report
Join us as we Take Our Country Back
Sic vis pacem para bellum