Attorneys for relatives of the Riverside family slain by “catfish” cop Austin Lee Edwards have notified Virginia officials of their intent to sue, citing gross negligence by the state and local law enforcement agencies that hired him.
Edwards killed Sharie Winek, 65; Mark Winek, 69; and Brooke Winek, 38, in their Riverside home on the morning of Nov. 25 and kidnapped Brooke’s then-15-year-old daughter. Police have said that Edwards, 28, catfished the girl online, telling her that he was 17.
Edwards, a former Virginia state trooper then employed by the Washington County, Va., sheriff’s office, drove into the Mojave Desert, where he died in a confrontation with authorities. Police initially said he was killed in a shootout but later said he died of a self-inflicted gunshot with his service weapon. The girl was found physically uninjured.
Virginia law requires parties who intend to sue state and local agencies to send notice before filing suit in court.
Virginia-based attorneys who represent the kidnapped teen notified Washington County in March of their intent to sue. California-based attorneys for the teen’s younger sibling and aunt, Mychelle Blandin, who is the younger child’s guardian, notified Virginia officials on Wednesday that they also plan to file a lawsuit.
The California attorneys’ notices allege that Edwards’ employers demonstrated negligence; gross negligence; negligent and gross negligent hiring, supervision and retention; breach of mandatory duties and other violations of Virginia state law. The California attorneys’ notices argue that the family’s damages exceed $100 million.
“Virginia law enforcement is not going to share a shred of information without being forced to,” said David Ring, a Manhattan Beach-based attorney who represents Blandin and the younger of her two nieces. “The only way the family is ever going to get real answers is through litigation. Without this lawsuit, the truth will get whitewashed.”
The Times previously reported that Edwards told the Virginia State Police that he went to a mental health facility in 2016, indicating that the agency had evidence of his mental health issues during the application process. This visit triggered two custody orders and led to a judge revoking his gun ownership rights.
The agency hired him anyway.
Although Edwards’ admission wouldn’t have been an “automatic disqualifier” on its own, it should have triggered Virginia State Police to investigate further, Col. Gary Settle, the state police superintendent, wrote in a December letter to the state’s inspector general.
“Unfortunately, the error allowed him to be employed, as there were no other disqualifiers,” Settle wrote.
The Times also reported that Edwards groomed another girl before he became a police officer. The woman, now 21, told The Times that Edwards, then 20, solicited nude photos from her when she was 13.
The Wineks’ surviving relatives want “to change how the police screen potential new hires so this never happens again,” Alison Polin Saros, an El Segundo-based attorney who also represents Blandin and her younger niece, said in a statement.
Blandin told The Times that it was “devastating” that the two agencies had hired Edwards despite the resources at their disposal.
“This shouldn’t have to happen to any other family,” Blandin said. “My parents and my sister didn’t deserve this. My nieces and my kids didn’t deserve this. I didn’t deserve this.”
“My parents loved their neighborhood and community,” Blandin added. “To take them away from something that they loved so much is just unfathomable.”
Virginia-based attorney Scott Perry, who represents the teenage girl, sent a separate notice to Washington County in March. That notice also alleges negligence on the part of the sheriff’s office, which employed Edwards until his death.
Washington County’s Board of Supervisors is scheduled to meet on May 23 to discuss the matter.