Relatives of three Riverside, California, family members slain last year by “catfish” cop Austin Lee Edwards plan to file a lawsuit next month seeking more than $100 million in damages from two Virginia law enforcement agencies that hired him even though he failed a preemployment mental health screening.
Mychelle Blandin, who is the daughter of Mark Winek, 69 and Sharie Winek, 65, and sister of Brooke Winek, 38, submitted a tort claim this week against the Virginia State Police as a precursor to a formal lawsuit. All three were killed and their home set on fire by Edwards on Nov. 25.
Brooke Winek’s 15-year-old daughter was kidnapped by Edwards during the crime, but managed to escape unharmed before Edwards fatally shot himself during a confrontation with sheriff’s deputies.
Officer Ryan Railsback, a Riverside Police Department spokesperson, said Friday the agency is still analyzing more than 1 million pages of internet and social media content involving the suspect and kidnapped teen.
The lawsuit will allege that Virginia State Police were grossly negligent in hiring Edwards as a state trooper in January 2022 and buried the results of his failed mental health evaluation.
Blandin also has filed a separate tort claim against the Washington County, Virginia, Sheriff’s Office alleging the agency was negligent because it relied on the Virginia State Police’s mental health evaluation of Edwards and did not complete its own background investigation before hiring him as a deputy in November 2022.
Shouldn’t have had a badge, attorney says
“There is not a law enforcement agency in the country that would have hired Austin Lee Edwards,” said David M. Ring, a Manhattan Beach attorney representing Blandin and the 15-year-old girl’s younger sibling. “Yet, in Virginia there are two separate law enforcement agencies that completely dropped the ball, allowing him through without checking his background. It’s due to ineptitude and outdated policies. Frankly, it’s careless and reckless.”
Riverside police said Edwards, 28, pretended to be a 17-year-old boy to establish an online, “catfishing” relationship with the 15-year-old girl. He drove across from southern Virginia to meet her at her family’s Price Court home after she rejected his request to send him nude photos of herself.
A short time after the slayings, Edwards, who at the time was employed as a Washington County sheriff’s deputy, used his service revolver to kill himself during a shootout with San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies in the town of Kelso in the Mojave Desert. The kidnap victim escaped from Edwards’ vehicle unharmed.
The Virginia State Police declined to comment on the tentative lawsuit because it is pending litigation, said an email from Corinne Geller, a spokesperson for the agency. Officials with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.
The Virginia State Police have claimed that Edwards’ hiring was due to “human error,” a notion Ring disputes.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin had asked the state’s Office of Inspector General for a full investigation into Edwards’ hiring.
But due at least in part to a previously existing mutual agreement between state police and the OIG, state police appear to have simply investigated the matter themselves, according to The Associated Press, which obtained a policy document through a public records request.
A memorandum of understanding between state police and the OIG, the watchdog agency tasked with investigating waste and rooting out inefficiencies in state government, says that in nearly all cases, Virginia State Police retains responsibility for “the oversight and conduct of internal investigations of its personnel,” according to the AP.
Victims stabbed, smothered
Meanwhile, Ring offered a timeline of Edwards’ 2,300-mile odyssey from Virginia, which included a stop in San Diego, where he went to the home of a woman whom he had catfished for several years but had never met in person.
The woman, who was not identified in the tort claim, allowed Edwards to stay with her for several days before he mysteriously disappeared, Ring said. The woman became concerned when Edwards didn’t respond to her texts and notified police he was missing. However, by that time, Edwards was already dead, Ring said.
The tort claim states Edwards displayed his law enforcement badge and service weapon to gain entry into the Wineks’ home by falsely claiming he was conducting a law enforcement investigation.
Edward then had Sharie Winek contact Brooke Winek, allegedly directing her to bring her 15-year-old daughter to the home immediately. Once there, he told Brooke to come into the house and to leave the girl and all cellphones inside her car, the claim states.
After a few minutes, the girl got out of the car and entered the home, where she encountered a grisly scene and her dead family members.
Edward slit Brooke Winek’s throat and asphyxiated Mark and Sharon Winek, who were both hogtied with bags over their heads, the tort claims. Finally, Edwards set the home on fire and kidnapped the girl at gunpoint.
“The guy is a nut case and clearly had some serious mental health issues,” Ring said. “He came out to California for a definite reason and that was to kill people and kidnap the girl. He also planned to take the girl back to a stash house in Virginia, where he had darkened the windows. Edwards was unhinged and dangerous. He never should have been a cop.”
Previous mental health issues
In his application to become a Virginia state trooper, Edwards disclosed that he had voluntarily checked himself into a mental health facility in 2016 after cutting his hand and threatening to kill his father, the tort claim states.
In response, Virginia State Police ordered Edwards to undergo a mental health evaluation, which he failed and the agency did not investigate further, ultimately hiring him, Ring said.
After the 2016, mental health crisis, police and emergency medical technicians took Edwards into custody at a local hospital, where he was detained under an emergency custody order. A judge approved a temporary detention order and Edwards was transferred to a psychiatric facility.
Shouldn’t have had a firearm
Under Virginia law, anyone held on a temporary detention order and subsequently admitted to a treatment facility is prohibited from buying or possessing a firearm until that right is restored by a court, according to the claim.
“In Edwards’ case, his right to buy or possess a firearm was not restored by a court when he applied to become a Virginia state trooper,” the claim says. “Despite this, the Virginia State Police hired him, issued him a service pistol, and trained him in law enforcement tactics that he used in carrying out the plot to kidnap … and murder.”
Formal lawsuits against Virginia State Police and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office are expected to be filed in June.