Deputy kidnaps girl and kills her mom, grandparents days after he was hired, suit says

Days after a Virginia sheriff’s office hired a new deputy, he traveled across the country to a 15-year-old’s California home and killed her mother and grandparents, then kidnapped her, according to a new federal lawsuit.

Nearly a year later, the girl’s aunt and minor sister are suing the sheriff’s office.

Austin Lee Edwards, 28, died by suicide on Nov. 25, 2022, after he was accused of kidnapping the girl, killing her relatives and setting her family’s home on fire, authorities said, The Associated Press reported. He died as a shootout with San Bernardino sheriff’s deputies unfolded, according to authorities.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia hired Edwards on Nov. 16, 2022, after he previously worked as a Virginia State Police trooper, according to a Nov. 28, 2022, news release from the office.

Edwards had messaged the teen online while posing as a 17-year-old boy and used a fake profile to “catfish” her, a complaint filed Nov. 16 in federal court in California says.

On Nov. 25, 2022, Edwards arrived at the Riverside home, where the girl lived with her grandparents Mark and Sharon Winek and her mother, Brooke Winek, and the deadly violence ensued, the complaint says.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office is accused of failing to properly investigate Edwards, who was “unfit to be a sheriff’s deputy, given his mental health background” when he was hired, according to the lawsuit filed by Mychelle Blandin, the girl’s aunt, and the girl’s sister.

In 2016, Edwards was accused of “threatening to kill his father” during a mental health crisis, leading to his detention for a psychiatric evaluation and admittance into a treatment facility, the complaint says.

The incident was detailed in a police report obtained by The Los Angeles Times, which reported in December 2022 that Edwards never informed Virginia State Police about the event, spokesperson Corinne Geller told the newspaper at the time.

This should’ve barred him from buying or possessing a firearm under Virginia law, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit, which also names Edwards’ estate as a defendant, accuses the sheriff’s office of negligence.

“Defendant WCSO’s negligence in hiring, supervising, and/or retaining Edwards was a substantial factor in Edwards carrying out the murders of Decedents Mark Winek, Sharon Winek, and Brooke Winek,” the complaint says.

McClatchy News contacted the sheriff’s office for comment on Nov. 17 and didn’t receive an immediate response.

The sheriff’s office in its Nov. 28, 2022, news release wrote Edwards’ “past employers and the Virginia State Police were contacted during the hiring processing.”

“However, no employers disclosed any troubles, reprimands, or internal investigations pertaining to Edwards,” the office said.

McClatchy News contacted Geller, the state police spokesperson, for comment on Nov. 17 and didn’t receive an immediate response.

How the killings unfolded

According to authorities in California, Edwards asked the 15-year-old to send him nude images while pretending to be a 17-year-old boy — leading to the girl ending communications with him sometime before he traveled to her home about 55 miles east of Los Angeles, The Associated Press reported.

On Nov. 25, 2022, Mark and Sharon Winek were the only ones home when Edwards appeared, showed his badge and law enforcement weapon, and entered the house, according to the complaint, which says he lied to them about being involved in a law enforcement investigation.

Edwards then had Sharon Winek call Brooke Winek and tell her that she and her daughter needed to “come to the home immediately,” the complaint says.

Ultimately, Brooke arrived with her daughter, left her inside the vehicle as part of additional instructions from Edwards and went into the home alone, according to the complaint.

The girl, identified only as “R.W.” in court documents, went inside the home after a period of waiting and found Edwards had fatally slit her mother’s throat, the complaint says.

Sharon and Mark Winek were “hogtied with bags over their heads” when Edwards set the home ablaze with them inside and kidnapped the girl at gunpoint, according to the complaint, which says “at least one of them was still moving when R.W. entered the home.”

Edwards fled with the girl in his car and later died by suicide while surrounded by San Bernardino County deputies, the complaint says.

“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, according 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,” Blandin added. “I want the Washington County Sheriff’s Office held accountable for giving a mentally unfit person a badge and a gun.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling or texting 988.

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