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, Va., sheriff's office, killed Mark Winek, 69; Sharie Winek, 65; and Brooke Winek 38, in their Riverside home on the morning of Nov. 25, according to authorities. He set fire to their home and kidnapped Brooke's then-15-year-old daughter. Police said Edwards, 28, "catfished" the girl by telling her during 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 other allegations. Blandin, who is the guardian of the 15-year-old's younger sister, has also sued on behalf of the younger child, and is seeking unspecified financial compensation.
After kidnapping the teen, Edwards drove into the Mojave Desert with the girl, where he died in a confrontation with law enforcement. Police initially said he was killed in a shootout but later said he died of a self-inflicted gunshot with his service weapon. The girl wasn't physically injured.
“Our law enforcement agencies and their process for screening new hires must be held to the highest standards,” Alison Saros, an attorney for Blandin, said in a news release. “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."
The Washington County Sheriff's Office didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Times previously reported that Edwards told the Virginia State Police during his application process that he was detained for psychiatric evaluation and went to a mental health facility in 2016, showing that the agency knew about his mental health issues. This visit led to two custody orders, which typically allow law enforcement to take someone into custody and transport them for mental health evaluation, and a judge revoking his gun ownership rights.
Col. Gary Settle, the state police superintendent, wrote in a letter to the state’s inspector general after the slayings that Edwards' admission wouldn't have automatically disqualified him from being hired, but should have prompted Virginia State Police to investigate further.
“Unfortunately, the error allowed him to be employed, as there were no other disqualifiers,” Settle wrote.
After resigning from 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 slayings, Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis said that Edwards had started orientation at his agency and that none of Edwards’ prior employers had disclosed any red flags.
“It is shocking and sad to the entire law enforcement community that such an evil and wicked person could infiltrate law enforcement while concealing his true identity as a computer predator and murderer,” Andis said.
During the killings, police believe Edwards presented his badge to Sharie and Mark Winek and told them he was there for an investigation in order to lure Brooke Winek and her 15-year-old daughter back to the Riverside home, The Times previously reported.
He put bags over the heads of Sharie and Mari Winek, who both died from asphyxiation, according to their coroner's reports also included with the lawsuit. Edwards then stabbed Brooke Winek, who died from a wound to her spinal cord, according to her coroner's report.
“Edwards never should have been hired by the Sheriff’s Department. 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,” 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.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.