A California family has filed a lawsuit against the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia after a deputy hired by the department was involved in a series of crimes, including the sexual extortion and kidnapping of a 15-year-old girl, the murder of her mother and grandparents, and the setting of their home on fire. The deputy, Austin Lee Edwards, 28, died by suicide during a shootout with law enforcement on November 25, following the violent incidents in Riverside, California.
The lawsuit, filed by the girl’s aunt, Mychelle Blandin, and her minor sister, alleges that the Washington County Sheriff’s Office was negligent in hiring Edwards and seeks damages through a jury trial. Edwards had been hired just nine days before the killings, despite a 2016 court order that prohibited him from possessing firearms due to a psychiatric detention. The court order was issued after Edwards had threatened to kill his father and engaged in self-harm.
Authorities have revealed that Edwards had posed as a 17-year-old boy online, engaging in “catfishing” to communicate with the teenage girl and coerce her into sending nude photos. When the girl stopped responding to his messages, Edwards traveled from Virginia to her home in California. The lawsuit claims that Edwards used his law enforcement badge and service weapon to gain access to the girl’s grandparents’ home, where he killed her mother, Brooke Winek, and attempted to asphyxiate her grandparents by tying bags over their heads. He then set their home on fire.
Blandin, the plaintiff, stated that the killings had devastated their family and questioned how Edwards was hired as a sheriff’s deputy and given a firearm despite the court order prohibiting him from possessing one. Edwards had previously been employed by the Virginia State Police before being hired as a deputy in Washington County. Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin has called for a full investigation into the hiring process, as it was discovered that a background investigator failed to check the correct database that would have revealed the mental health order.
The lawsuit does not name the Virginia State Police as a defendant. However, the state police have made changes to their employment processes, background investigation policies, and training in response to the incident.