Last year, a former Virginia state trooper who had recently been hired as a sheriff’s deputy allegedly killed the mother and grandparents of a 15-year-old girl in California he is accused of catfishing online, authorities said. Now, the victims’ family plans to sue the agencies that hired him, claiming that they acted with “gross negligence,” court filings show.
Austin Edwards, 28, allegedly catfished the teen by posing as a 17-year-old boy online, according to notice of claim letters obtained by ABC News. The former Virginia state trooper was recently hired to be a deputy with the Washington County, Virginia, Sheriff’s Office when he allegedly drove across the country to meet the teen at her home in Riverside over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Edwards allegedly used his badge and service weapon to enter the home under the false pretense of a law enforcement investigation before authorities say he murdered the three victims — identified as husband-and-wife Mark and Sharie Winek and their daughter, Brooke Winek — set the house on fire and kidnapped the teen, according to the court documents. Edwards died following a pursuit and the girl was rescued, authorities said. His manner of death was suicide caused by a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to the local coroner’s office.
The notice of claim letters were filed on behalf of the teen’s legal guardian and a sibling by a Manhattan Beach attorney and served this week to the Commonwealth of Virginia and County of Washington, the documents show. The filings indicate the family is claiming they have suffered at least $100 million in damages.
According to the filings, Edwards was hired by Virginia State Police in January 2022 despite failing a mental health evaluation. Edwards was ordered to undergo the evaluation after he disclosed he had voluntarily checked himself into a mental health facility in 2016 “after cutting his hand and threatening to kill his father,” according to the filings.
“The Virginia State Police deliberately buried the results of this mental health examination, did no further investigation into this aspect of Edwards’ application, and hired him,” the filings state. “The Virginia State Police later claimed the hiring of Edwards was due to ‘human error,’ which could not have been further from the truth.”
The filings state that under Virginia law, Edwards should not have been allowed to handle a gun, but was given a service pistol by the Virginia State Police. After Edwards resigned from the Virginia State Police in October 2022, he was hired by the Washington County, Virginia, Sheriff’s Office, which relied on information from state police, according to the filings.
Spokespeople for the Virginia Attorney General’s Office and Virginia State Police told ABC News they do not comment on pending litigation.
ABC News also reached out to the Washington County attorney for comment on the notices. The Washington County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to discuss the Winek family’s claim for damages at its next meeting on Tuesday, according to its agenda.
State police said in a statement in the wake of the crimes: “As a probationary employee, Edwards was also given monthly performance evaluations, in accordance with department policy. During Edwards’ short tenure with the department, he never exhibited any behaviors to trigger any internal administrative or criminal investigations.”
The Washington County, Virginia, Sheriff’s Office said that Edwards had started orientation with the department the week prior to the incident.
“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 sheriff’s office said in a statement last year.
Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis added in a statement last year: “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.”