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Catfishing ex-cop slaughters three

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LA Post: Catfishing ex-cop slaughters three
January 29, 2024
Sowjanya P - LA Post

The Virginia law enforcement department that recently recruited Austin Lee Edwards—the "catfishing cop" responsible for the November murders of three members of a Riverside, California family—is now facing a new lawsuit that claims carelessness on their part. Victims' families have filed a lawsuit in Central California's U.S. District Court, accusing Edwards' estate and the Virginia sheriff's office of their role in the murders of the Winek family. In addition to allegations of careless recruiting, oversight, and retention, the case contends that further wrongdoings transpired, including violations of Fourth Amendment rights.

On November 25, the unfortunate incidents occurred when Edwards went to the home of Mark Winek, 69, Sharie Winek, 65, and their daughter Brooke Winek, 38. Committing a terrible deed, Edwards ignited their residence and took Brooke's 15-year-old daughter without permission, claiming to be conducting an inquiry and showing his badge to appear trustworthy. Later, he traveled with the adolescent to the Mojave Desert, where he ended his own life during a confrontation with law enforcement. Thankfully, the small girl came out without any physical injuries. Investigators believe that Edwards used his position as a sheriff's deputy to enter the victims' house and influence them. He had previously participated in fraudulent online activity by pretending to be a 17-year-old guy and "catfishing" the teenage girl.

Mychelle Blandin has initiated legal action on behalf of the 15-year-old and her younger sister, claiming that the Washington County Sheriff's Office failed to follow appropriate screening protocols when employing Edwards as a patrol deputy just nine days before the unfortunate event. The legal action asserts that the agency was aware of Edwards' previous mental health issues, including a 2016 psychiatric detention and the revocation of his firearms rights, yet failed to investigate these warning signs adequately. Virginia State Police Superintendent Colonel Gary Settle has also acknowledged that while Edwards' admission of a psychiatric stay would not have automatically disqualified him from law enforcement employment, it should have prompted further scrutiny, which did not occur.  

Attorneys for Blandin assert that Edwards never should have been given a badge or gun, given his history, which made him a threat to public safety. They allege the negligence of the Washington County Sheriff's Office enabled Edwards to use his position to access his victims and carry out the brutal attacks. The lawsuit seeks monetary compensation for the suffering experienced by the surviving sisters. The Washington County Sheriff's Office has not responded to media inquiries regarding the judicial procedures.

The killings caused a strong reaction among law enforcement officials in multiple jurisdictions, leading to worries about possible weaknesses in the systems for checking backgrounds and evaluating the mental health of prospective employees. Edwards was able to conceal parts of his past, including domestic violence allegations by an ex-girlfriend and his involuntary psychiatric admission, exploits some experts say should have been caught. "It is surprising and unfortunate to the whole law enforcement community that someone with such malicious intentions and deceitful nature could join law enforcement without revealing their true identity as a computer predator and murderer," expressed Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis in response to the killings.

Edwards resigned from the Virginia State Police after only nine months in 2021, then applied to and was swiftly hired by the Washington County Sheriff's Office. The lawsuit alleges he used his father and close friend as references, who failed to disclose worrisome behaviors. Attorneys emphasize the urgency of thoroughly vetting applicants and implementing early intervention programs to identify officers unfit for duty. If Edwards' past instability and violence had been caught, they say a tragic triple homicide could potentially have been prevented.  

The community of Riverside has been shattered by the brutal November attacks, which also left the two young sisters orphaned just before Thanksgiving. It began when Edwards presented himself in uniform to the Winek family home, likely gaining initial trust by his position of authority. Once inside, he quickly turned violent - authorities believe he put bags over the heads of the parents, Mark and Sharie, killing them by asphyxiation. He then fatally stabbed their daughter Brooke, severing her spinal cord, according to her coroner's report.  

After murdering the three family members and setting fire to their home, Edwards fled the grisly scene with Brooke's 15-year-old daughter. The teenager was unharmed physically but severely traumatized, now facing intensive therapy and ongoing nightmares, family members report. Her younger sister also requires substantial counseling after losing her entire immediate family. Their aunt Mychelle Blandin, who filed the lawsuit, is now their guardian as they attempt to process their grief and rebuild their lives.  

Attorneys for Blandin assert the Washington County Sheriff's Office handed authority, deadly weapons and access to vulnerable community members to an unstable, dangerous man they failed to investigate thoroughly. Edwards had exhibited mental health issues and violent tendencies in his past known to Virginia State Police, red flags the lawsuit alleges should have barred him from serving as a deputy sheriff authorized to carry a firearm and badge. If he had remained a civilian, the attorneys argue, he would not have gained entry to the Wineks' home or their trust quite as easily. The badge and gun afforded him by a negligent Sheriff's Office empowered Edwards and directly enabled these acts, the lawsuit claims.  

In the aftermath of the horrific attacks that claimed three lives and traumatized two children, officials emphasized the urgent need to reassess hiring protocols and safeguards against individuals unfit for law enforcement duties slipping through the cracks. Edwards' brief nine-month tenure at Virginia State Police and rapid hiring in Washington County now appear accelerated compared to typical onboarding processes. Attorney Saros asserts in the lawsuit that "Our law enforcement agencies and their process for screening new hires must be held to the highest standards. These individuals are meant to protect us, but the Sheriff's Office failed to follow the proper processes."

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