A Virginia deputy met a 15-year-old girl online, traveled across the country, illegally gained access to her residence in California, killed three members of her family, set fire to their home, kidnapped the girl, and then killed himself during a shootout with other members of law enforcement. Now, the surviving family has filed a lawsuit against the sheriff’s department that hired him just days before the massacre.
In July 2021, Austin Lee Edwards was hired by the Virginia State Police. In January 2022, he graduated from the police academy. In October of last year, he quit his first job in law enforcement. On Nov. 16, 2022, he was hired by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.
On Nov. 25, 2022, Edwards brutally murdered Mark Winek, 69, Sharon “Sharie” Winek, 65, and Brooke Winek, 38. The girl, Brooke Winek’s daughter, was ultimately rescued, but the scars and trauma remain.
“Edwards never should have been hired by the Sheriff’s Department,” lead attorney David Ring told Law&Crime. “He was barred by the courts from owning or possessing a gun because of his mental illness and because he was a clear danger to the community. He used his position as a sheriff’s deputy and the gun they gave him to kill these innocent victims.”
On Nov. 16, the one-year anniversary of the killer deputy’s unfortunate hiring, Mychelle Blandin, the daughter and sister of the deceased, and the aunt of the girl who was kidnapped, filed a federal lawsuit in the Central District of California against the sheriff’s office, multiple unnamed members of staff there, and Edwards’ estate.
The heart of the argument against the sheriff’s office is that it “did not conduct an adequate investigation into Edwards’ background before hiring him” and that if it had done so, “they would have learned that he was detained for a psychiatric evaluation in February 2016 after threatening to kill himself and his father,” according to the 27-page lawsuit and exhibits obtained by Law&Crime.
“Our law enforcement agencies and their process for screening new hires must be held to the highest standards,” co-counsel Alison Saros told Law&Crime. “These individuals are meant to protect us, but the Sheriff’s Office failed to follow the proper processes. Sadly, the Winek family has suffered irreparable tragedy.”
After that incident with his father, Edwards was detained and institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital over mental health concerns.
“During his psychiatric stay, another judge barred Edwards from purchasing, possessing or transporting firearms,” the lawsuit reads. “Edwards was advised that his gun rights had been revoked unless restored by a court.”
Virginia law expressly forbids people from buying or possessing firearms if they have been held on a temporary detention order and subsequently admitted to a treatment facility – unless a court order has restored such rights, the lawsuit explains.
“Edwards never petitioned a court to restore his right to buy or possess a firearm,” the filing goes on. “As of the time he applied for a position with the [Washington County] Sheriff’s Office, his right to buy or possess a firearm had not been restored by a court. As such, it would have been unlawful for him to own or possess a firearm under Virginia law. Despite this, the Sheriff’s Office hired Edwards and provided him with a service weapon.”
Gun in hand, the killer went on to catfish the young girl – identified in the complaint as R.W. – by pretending to be a 17-year-old boy on the internet.
“Edwards sent romantic messages to R.W. with this fake profile and learned personal information about R.W.,” the lawsuit notes.
Some of that personal information included the young girl’s address in Riverside, California – roughly an hour east of Los Angeles.
After driving for over 24 hours, Edwards made his way to the girl’s front door and identified himself as a member of law enforcement – which he was. The since-deceased killer showed his badge and made up a story about an investigation involving the girl herself.
“Edwards instructed Sharon to call Brooke,” the lawsuit reads. “Once Brooke answered the phone, Sharon told Brooke that there was a detective at the home who was there to ask questions about a prior incident involving R.W. Sharon told Brooke that the detective wanted Brooke and R.W. to come to the home immediately.
The girl’s mother complied with what she believed to be a legitimate law enforcement request.
Blandin was also called by her mother that day. The deputy instructed his eventual captive to tell the girl’s aunt that she should remind her sister to keep her cellphone in the car and to leave R.W. in the car so he could question them separately. Again, Brooke Winek complied.
After waiting in the car for some time, the girl went inside and saw an unspeakable scene of horror.
“Edwards had murdered her mother by slitting her throat,” the lawsuit reads. “Edwards had also attempted to murder her grandparents by asphyxiation. Her grandparents were both hogtied with bags over their heads, but at least one of them was still moving when R.W. entered the home. Edwards then set the house on fire and kidnapped R.W. at gunpoint with his service weapon.”
Law enforcement soon enough learned what had transpired. Edwards killed himself during an ensuing shootout with deputies from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. The girl made it out alive.
“I am bringing this lawsuit because my family wants to know how Edwards was hired as a sheriff’s deputy and given a gun when the courts expressly ordered he could not possess a firearm,” Blandin said in a statement provided to the Associated Press. “He used his position as a sheriff to gain access to my parents’ home, where he killed them and my sister. I want the Washington County Sheriff’s Office held accountable for giving a mentally unfit person a badge and a gun.”
The lawsuit contains four causes of action and seeks wrongful death damages, survival damages including pain and suffering, loss of life damages, statutory damages under Golden State law, and attorney’s fees.
Law&Crime reached out to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office for comment on this story but no response was immediately forthcoming as of the time of publication.
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