Two law enforcement agencies missed a glaring red flag when they hired Austin Lee Edwards in 2022, allowing him to kidnap a teenage girl whom he “catfished,” kill three of her family members and burn their house down behind the cloak of a police uniform, according to a $50 million federal lawsuit.
A 2016 court action revoked Edwards’ gun rights after a psychotic episode when he cut himself and threatened to kill his father, the legal action says.
The court order was missed during the background checks by Virginia State Police and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, which allegedly never called his references, including his father, and cleared Edwards for hire.
“If the VSP or the WCSO had performed a background check on Edwards, neither of them would have hired Edwards,” the lawsuit says. “A spokesperson for the VSP has admitted that the failure to perform a background check on Edwards was the result of ‘human error,’ and it would not have hired any officer candidate who it knew had been detained under an emergency custody order and a temporary detention order.”
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The Virginia State Police and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office did not return Digital’s requests for comment.
Edwards completed the Virginia State Police Academy in January 2022, but resigned as a state trooper in October 2022. He was hired by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in mid-November.
VIRGINIA DEPUTY WHO CATFISHED TEEN AND KILLED FAMILY, SHOT HIMSELF WITH SERVICE GUN
Before he was hired, the 28-year-old man posed as a 17-year-old on Instagram and showered a 15-year-old California girl with gifts, but she blocked him after he asked for explicit images.
Ten days after he started his job as a deputy sheriff, he crossed state lines and pretended he was investigating “an exchange of lewd photographs” and began his horrific murder spree.
The teenager came home to find her family members “lying face down with bags over their heads that were taped at their necks,” according to the lawsuit, which was reviewed by Digital.
He grabbed the teenager, who screamed. With his badge on his belt, he pointed a semiautomatic handgun “with a star engraved on it” at her, the lawsuit says.
She recognized his voice as the fictitious 17-year-old that she had phone conversations with. He torched their home and forced her into his car.
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“Edwards told R.K.W. (teenage victim) that he was a police officer, and that they ‘need to do better backgrounds,’” the lawsuit says. She asked why he killed her family.
“He told her that if he did not kill them, they would ‘report it’ and he would not have enough time to escape California and return to Virginia,” according to the federal civil action.
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Firefighters and police officers, who responded to the burning home, found the bodies and hunted Edwards.
They exchanged gunfire during the high-speed police chase, while Edwards splashed the teenager with gasoline, but his car stalled on rocks under a bridge.
He ordered her out of the car and shot himself. The girl survived.
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The federal civil lawsuit, which was filed on Feb. 2 in Virginia federal court, names Sheriff Blake Andis, the sheriff’s office, Det. William Smarr and Michael Carey, the administrator of Edwards’ estate.
By giving Edwards a job in the sheriff’s office, he was handed a badge and gun, two things he would not have been able to get his hands on, and that allowed him to execute his murderous rampage, according to the lawsuit.
“The failure of the WCSO to properly screen the individuals they cloak with State authority is shocking and unacceptable. Without a badge, a gun, and this cloak of authority, Edwards would not have been able to commit these heinous acts,” the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Attorney Scott Perry, told WTOP.com.
“This family has been mercilessly torn apart and R.K.W. (teenage victim) must live with the reality of that horrific day. We want justice for R.K.W.’s family and to prevent this from happening again.”
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The complaint was filed on behalf of Mark and Sharie Winek’s surviving daughter, Mychelle Blandin. A second surviving underage girl, who was identified in court documents as “B.W.,” is also listed as a plaintiff.