Former Virginia state trooper who killed teen’s family had troubled past, still got police job
Austin Lee Edwards got a job with the Virginia State Police after threatening to kill his father and himself in a 2016 encounter in Abingdon.
The State Police are conceding “human error” in its review of Edwards before he was hired in 2021.
Edwards, 28, had left VSP by the time he drove across the country to meet a California teen that he had gotten to know online, killed her mother and grandparents, set their home on fire, and abducted the girl, before dying in a shootout with police.
By that point, Edwards was employed with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, and had settled into a home in Saltville, population 2,077, on the Smyth County/Washington County county line in Southwest Virginia, two hours southwest of Roanoke.
Neighbors said Edwards had blacked out the windows of the new home, which he purchased on Nov. 14, with car tint, shortly after moving in.
He started his new job in Washington County on Nov. 16, and it was nine days later, on Nov. 25, the Friday after Thanksgiving, that he showed up at the doorstep of a home in Riverside, Calif., owned by 69-year-old Mark Winek and his wife, 65-year-old Sharie Winek.
Their 38-year-old daughter, Brooke Winek, and her daughter, the teen abducted by Edwards, lived with the older Wineks.
Mark, Sherie and Brooke were found dead in front of the home as firefighters arrived on the scene to try to put out the structure fire at the home.
Edwards was already on the lam with the teen, but authorities had been tipped off that he had the girl with him when a neighbor called 911 to report seeing a young woman in distress getting into a vehicle with a man in the neighborhood.
Several hours later, he was discovered driving with the teen through San Bernardino County, when he was located by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department in the unincorporated area of Kelso.
As a SWAT team intercepted Edward’s vehicle, Edwards fled and led deputies on a pursuit, firing at deputies as he fled. The volley of gunfire struck the SWAT vehicle numerous times.
Edwards lost control of his vehicle, and the pursuit ended when he drove off the road. The female victim exited the vehicle and was rescued by deputies.
Edwards exited the vehicle and pointed a gun at the sheriff’s helicopter, and deputies fired at Edwards. Upon contact, Edwards was unresponsive and pronounced dead at the scene.
Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis has already acknowledged the oddity of this crime being perpetrated by a law enforcement officer.
“It is shocking and sad to the entire law enforcement community that such an evil and wicked person could infiltrate law enforcement while concealing his true identity as a computer predator and murderer. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Winek family, their friends, officers, and all of those affected by this heinous crime,” Andis said.
There is no word on how Edwards was able to pass his background check to get the job in Washington County.
The incident in Abingdon involving Edwards and his father was reported on Feb. 8, 2016. Edwards, according to local authorities there, threatened to kill his father and himself after using a kitchen knife to cut open his hand.
He was taken to a psychiatric facility in Bristol following the incident, but no criminal charges were filed in the case.
The Virginia State Police, in a statement, said Edwards did not disclose any incidents in his time during the hiring process or during the 15 months with the agency that would have disqualified him from employment.
“The department’s administrative review is now complete and has revealed that human error resulted in an incomplete database query during Edwards’ hiring process,” VSP said. “Although we believe this to be an isolated incident, steps are currently underway to ensure the error is not repeated going forward. The department is also proactively auditing existing personnel records and practices.”