Former Virginia soldier accused of killing three California family members after ‘catfishing’ their teenage parent traveled to the state to visit a longtime girlfriend days before the triple homicide, said a close friend of the ex-soldier in an exclusive interview with NBC. New.
The friend, Tommy Gates, declined to identify the girlfriend but said the two met online. He thought she was two to three years younger than 28-year-old Austin Edwards. A home Edwards recently purchased in Saltville, southwest Virginia, was for the two of them, he said.
Edwards had been dating the woman for at least five years, a second close friend said in a text.
The trip raises new questions in the horrific case, including the plans Edwards made in the days and weeks before he arrived in Riverside, east Los Angeles, where he was accused of killing a single mother and her parents, then to leave with the woman. 15-year-old daughter on November 25 as their house burned down.
In interviews, people who knew Edwards struggled to understand how he could have committed the crimes. A woman who had gone to community college with him and remained his friend was hospitalized under the weight of what her father described as overwhelming guilt.
“If she could have seen it, she could have done something to stop it,” said the woman’s father, Rodney Shortridge. Her daughter declined to comment.
Gates, 27, said he learned of Edwards’ father’s trip to California the day after the murders, when the father believed his son was missing, Gates said. Efforts to contact Edwards’ family were unsuccessful.
Gates did not know where the girlfriend lived in California, but said her home was not in Riverside, where the murders took place.
Asked about the visit, Riverside Police Department spokesman Ryan Railsback said Thursday that investigators were trying to figure out Edwards’ plans but declined to comment further.
It’s unclear what connection, if any, the trip had to a ‘catfishing’ scheme in which authorities believe Edwards posed as a 17-year-old to interact with the 15-year-old girl. year. Gates said he was unaware of the alleged scheme.
“None of us had a clue,” said the second close friend, who asked not to be identified because he feared being associated with Edwards.
Authorities identified the victims as Brooke Winek, 38; Mark Winek, 69; and Sharie Winek, 65. Their cause of death has not been revealed. The teenager was not injured. Edwards died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Railsback said.
Speaking to reporters late last month, Wineks family member Mychelle Blandin described her sister Brooke as a devoted single mother doing her best to raise her two children. his father, Mark, as a high school baseball and softball coach “with a big, caring heart”; and his mother, Sharie, the family matriarch, who “did anything and everything for anyone.
“They are forever in my heart and I miss them deeply,” she said, adding, “We have some comfort that this person will never harm anyone again, especially a minor.”
A “spontaneous” trip
Edwards had traveled to California because he had a Thanksgiving vacation, Edwards’ second close friend said.
He “decided to get up and go see her since he had just enough time to drive back and forth before having to work the following Monday”, says the friend.
It was Edwards’ first visit to meet the girlfriend, whom he often played League of Legends and Minecraft with, Gates said.
Neither Gates nor the second friend knew about the trip in advance, a move Gates described as unusual. The second friend said he found out about it from Edwards’ father after Edwards didn’t let him know he was going home.
Believing Edwards was missing, his friends contacted his girlfriend, Gates said.
In a text message with the second close friend, the girlfriend described Edwards’ trip as “spontaneous” and said everything went well, the second friend said.
“Nothing was unusual for her in her mannerisms or anything like that,” he said.
For Gates, that made what happened next all the more horrific and confusing.
“I’m angry, obviously,” Gates said. “He’s my buddy, my best friend. Before all this, he was one of the people I would have done almost anything for. How could he do something like that?
Plan for the future
The last time Gates saw Edwards was in early October, when he visited him in the Richmond area. Edwards, who graduated from the Virginia state police academy in January, worked as a private in a county surrounding the state capital, the agency said.
The two went to a Renaissance festival in Maryland, and Edwards seemed “as happy as it gets — openly,” Gates said. “I don’t know what was in his heart and in his head. But to others, he acted cheerful and happy.
Before joining the academy, Edwards had dropped out of high school in Richlands, southwestern Virginia, and earned his GED, Gates said. He worked at Walmart and Lowe’s, according to Gates. In 2017, he attended Southwest Virginia Community College, without a certificate or degree, a school spokesperson said.
Shortridge, whose daughter also worked with Edwards at Walmart, recalls hosting a comic book-style event that Edwards attended and talking about her future with him.
“He had a lower income level than your average residents here,” said Shortridge, a retired truck driver who lives near Tazewell. “Austin said that’s why he wanted to find a good job, to help his family out of poverty. I was like, man – I respect the hell of that.
Signs of trouble
In high school and several years after, Edwards was prone to bouts of depression, Gates said. In In 2016, he was taken into psychiatric detention after threatening to kill his father, according to a police report obtained by the Los Angeles Times. According to Gates, Edwards injured himself with a hatchet.
“He was going through a tough time,” Gates said. “He really cracked up that night.”
Gates didn’t know if Edwards had any other run-ins with law enforcement, and he said he felt remorse about the incident with his father.
After the murders, Virginia State Police said they found no “indicators of concern” during a background check on Edwards. After the Los Angeles Times article was published, the department said Wednesday that “human error resulted in an incomplete database query” during its hiring process.
“While we believe this to be an isolated incident, steps are currently being taken to ensure the error does not happen again,” the department said.
The statement did not mention the police report cited by the Los Angeles Times or provide additional details. NBC News has not confirmed details of the report.
Chuck Russo, a professor of criminal justice at the American Public University System and a former law enforcement officer who conducted background checks from two Florida agencies for nearly a decade, said the person in charge of the State Police investigation may have forgotten to check the correct box in a management system. or failed to contact the agency for a records check.
Russo described human error as a “huge black eye” for authorities. He also called the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, where Edwards worked after his resignation from the state police, to publicly state that he was reviewing hiring practices.
Sheriff Blake Andis did not respond to requests for comment.
“He took an oath to protect”
Edwards left his post as a private with the Virginia State Police on October 28 – 10 months after graduating from the academy. He wanted to move back to southwest Virginia, where he could be closer to friends and family, Gates said.
With savings and money Gates thinks Edwards got from a loan — and in a bid to bring his girlfriend east — he bought an invisible home for nearly $80,000 in Saltville. .
Gates said he overheard the girlfriend discussing the move to Virginia when he was with Edwards who called her on speakerphone.
“He had finally got his dream setup and had everything planned to have the best life,” he said. “Why would he want to end it all of a sudden?”
After Edwards moved in on November 14, he covered the windows with what Jacob Gordon, who had sold him the house, described as a tint likely from an auto shop. He also hung blackout curtains, Gordon said.
Gordon said he didn’t know why Edwards darkened his windows. Gates, who hadn’t visited the house but had planned to, was also unsure what to make of it.
“It’s strange for him,” he said. “He loved his privacy but he never did anything like that.”
Railsback said Friday that authorities still have not analyzed the items recovered from Edwards’ home.
Gates learned of the murders and alleged catfishing through media coverage. At first he said he didn’t believe it. But as the story developed and more details were released, he said he came to recognize that his best friend had probably done something horrible – even if he couldn’t. not reconcile the man he had known for years with the criminal described by the victims. ‘ member of the family, Mychelle Blandin.
“This horrific event began with an inappropriate online romance between a predator and a child,” Blandin said, adding, “He took an oath to protect and yet he didn’t. Instead, he s is taken from the most vulnerable.”