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Washington County Sheriff's Office sued over California catfish case

California Catfish
Amy Taxin
The Associated Press File
Dozens of candles are laid on the sidewalk, along with bouquets of flowers and stuffed animals outside of a charred home in Riverside, Calif., Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022. Authorities believe a suspect parked his vehicle in a neighbor's driveway, walked to the home and killed the family members before leaving with a a teenage girl.

Austin Lee Edwards was hired by Virginia State Police before working for the county department.

The following story contains graphic depictions of violence and references to suicide.

LOS ANGELES — A California family is suing the Washington County sheriff's department that hired a deputy who sexually extorted and kidnapped a 15-year-old girl at gunpoint, killed her mother and grandparents, and set their home on fire.

Austin Lee Edwards, 28, died by suicide during a shootout with law enforcement on Nov. 25, 2022, hours after the violence in Riverside, a city about 50 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. The teenager was rescued.

Edwards had been hired as a Washington County sheriff's deputy nine days before the killings, even though a 2016 court order prohibited him from buying, possessing and transporting a firearm. The court order stemmed from a psychiatric detention after Edwards cut himself and threatened to kill his father.

The girl’s aunt, Mychelle Blandin, and her minor sister filed the lawsuit Thursday in federal court in the Central District of California against the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and Edwards’ estate. The lawsuit said the department was negligent in hiring Edwards and seeks damages through a jury trial. The sheriff's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Authorities have said Edwards posed online as a 17-year-old boy while communicating with the teenager, a form of deception known as “catfishing,” and asked her to send nude photos of herself.

The girl stopped responding to his messages, prompting Edwards to travel across the country to her home in California. The lawsuit alleges that he showed his law enforcement badge and service weapon to Mark Winek and Sharon Winek, the girl's grandparents, and said he was a detective and needed to question the family.

A women stand behind a podium and speaks at a news conference.
Amy Taxin
Associated Press File
Alison Saros speaks about the death of her friends — the Winek family — during a press conference Riverside, California. Austin Lee Edwards, a Virginia sheriff's deputy posing online as a 17-year-old boy, formed a relationship with a teenage California girl. He drove across the country and allegedly killed her mother and grandparents and set fire to their home, authorities say.

The suit said Edwards slit the throat of the teen's mother, Brooke Winek, and tried to asphyxiate her grandparents by tying them up with bags over their heads. At least one of them was still moving when he set their home on fire, the lawsuit said.

Blandin said the killings “destroyed our family.”

“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. "He used his position as a sheriff to gain access to my parents’ home, where he killed them and my sister. I want the Washington County Sheriff’s Office held accountable for giving a mentally unfit person a badge and a gun.”

Edwards was hired by the Virginia State Police in July 2021 and resigned nine months later. He was then hired as a deputy in Washington County.

The slayings — and their connection to Virginia — prompted Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin to ask the state’s inspector general for a “full investigation," which found that a background investigator for the state police failed to check the correct database that would have pulled up the mental health order.

The state police, which is not listed as a defendant in the lawsuit, has since changed its employment processes and background investigation policies and training.

A spokesperson for the state police did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.