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After Murders Perpetrated by “Catfish” Cop, Family Sues for His Hiring

Relatives of the Riverside family killed by “catfish” cop Austin Lee Edwards nearly a year ago filed a lawsuit Thursday against the Virginia sheriff’s office that hired him.

Edwards, a former Virginia state trooper then employed by the Washington County, Virginia, Sheriff’s Office, killed Mark Winek, 69; Sharie Winek, 65; and Brooke Winek, 38, in their Riverside home the morning of Nov. 25, according to authorities. He set their house on fire and kidnapped Brooke’s 15-year-old daughter. Police said Edwards, 28, “catfished” the girl by telling her in previous online conversations that he was 17.

In a lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Central California, the teen’s aunt, Mychelle Blandin, sued the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and Edwards’ estate for damages, citing violation of 4th Amendment rights, battery, and negligent hiring, supervision, and retention, among others. other allegations. Blandin, who is the guardian of the 15-year-old’s younger sister, also filed a lawsuit on behalf of the younger child and is seeking unspecified financial compensation.

After kidnapping the teen, Edwards traveled to the Mojave Desert with the girl, where he died during a confrontation with law enforcement. Police initially said he was killed in a shooting, but later said he died from a self-inflicted gunshot with his service weapon. The girl was not physically unharmed.

“Our law enforcement agencies and their screening process for new recruits must be held to the highest standards,” Alison Saros, Blandin’s attorney, said in a press release. “These individuals are supposed to protect us, but the sheriff’s office did not follow proper procedures. Unfortunately, the Winek family suffered an irreparable tragedy.

A memorial stands in the darkness at the home where three family members were murdered Nov. 25, 2022, in Riverside.

(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Times previously reported that Edwards told Virginia State Police during his application process that he had been detained for a psychiatric evaluation and had gone to a correctional facility. mental health in 2016, showing the agency was aware of his mental health issues. That visit resulted in two custody orders, which typically allow law enforcement to arrest someone and transport them for a mental health evaluation, and a judge revoking their right to own a gun fire.

Col. Gary Settle, the state police commissioner, wrote in a letter to the state inspector general after the killings that Edwards’ admission would not have automatically disqualified him from being hired, but should have prompted the Virginia State Police to investigate further.

“Unfortunately, the error allowed him to be employed, as there were no other disqualifying factors,” Settle wrote.

After resigning from the Virginia State Police after nine months, Edwards applied to work at the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. He used his father and a close friend as references in his application. He was hired as a patrol deputy nine days before he killed the Wineks.

In a statement after the killings, Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis said Edwards had begun an orientation at his agency and that none of Edwards’ previous employers had revealed any red flags.

Mychelle Blandin holds a photo of her father and mother who were killed.

Mychelle Blandin (center) is comforted by her friend Tammy Porter (left) and her husband, Ben Blandin, as she holds a photo of her mother and father. Mychelle Blandin’s parents and sister were victims of a triple homicide in Riverside that authorities say began as a “catfishing” affair involving Blandin’s niece.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

“It is shocking and sad to the entire law enforcement community that such an evil and evil person could infiltrate law enforcement while concealing his true identity as a cyber predator and murderer,” Andis said.

During the murders, police believe Edwards presented his badge to Sharie and Mark Winek and told them he was there for an investigation to lure Brooke Winek and her 15-year-old daughter to the Riverside home he had The Times previously reported.

He put bags over the heads of Sharie and Mari Winek, both of whom died of asphyxiation, according to their coroner’s reports also included in the lawsuit. Edwards then stabbed Brooke Winek, who died from a spinal cord injury, according to her coroner’s report.

“Edwards should never have been hired by the Sheriff’s Department. The courts prohibited him from owning or possessing a firearm due to his mental illness and because he posed a clear danger to the community,” said David Ring, Blandin’s attorney. “He used his position as a sheriff’s deputy and the gun they gave him to kill these innocent victims.”

Los Angeles Times

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