RIVERSIDE, Calif. - The loved ones of a 15-year-old girl who was kidnapped, and whose mother and grandparents were murdered, announced they're suing Virginia authorities for hiring the man who allegedly "catfished" and killed the family in their Riverside home last year.
The lawsuit alleges that the Washington County of Virginia Sheriff's Office showed negligence in hiring Austin Lee Edwards.
"Edwards should never have been hired by the Sheriff's Department. He was barred by the courts from owning or possessing a gun because of his mental illness and because he was a clear danger to the community," said the family's attorney, David Ring. "He used his position as a sheriff's deputy and the gun they gave him to kill these innocent victims."
On Nov. 25, 2022, authorities said Edwards, a 28-year-old Washington County Sheriff's deputy, kidnapped a 15-year-old girl after catfishing her online by claiming to be just 17 years old.
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Edwards then drove to her Riverside home, where he murdered the girl's mother, Brooke Winek, and grandparents, Mark and Sharie Winek, before setting fire to the house. Edwards fled the scene in his vehicle with the teen girl and was tracked down by the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.
During a shootout with San Bernardino County deputies, Edwards died by suicide.
Edwards first became a law enforcement officer in January 2022 when he was hired by the Virginia State Police as a state trooper. He resigned from that position in October of that year and was hired as a deputy by the Washington County Sheriff's Office in November 2022.
The lawsuit claims that authorities did not conduct an adequate background check on Edwards before hiring him.
According to the suit, Edwards was detained for a psychiatric evaluation in connection with cutting himself and threatening to kill his father in 2016.
As a result, he was allegedly held on a temporary detention order and admitted to a treatment facility, which should have prevented him from buying or possessing a firearm under Virginia law.
Despite this, the lawsuit says that the Washington County Sheriff’s Office hired him as a deputy and provided him with a service firearm.
"Our law enforcement agencies and their process for screening news hires must be held to the highest standards," said another one of the family's attorneys, Alison Saros. "These individuals are meant to protect us, but the sheriff's office failed to follow the proper process."