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Cover-Up for the Catfishing Cop Murders

by Kendra Budd, Editor

A former Virginian police officer was accused of triple murder after catfishing a teenager online. However, the officer never had his day in court, as he was later killed in a shootout with police, after fleeing from authorities.

This unfortunate turn of events made many wonder exactly how this man, identified as Austin Lee Edwards, was able to become a cop in the first place. Meanwhile, the police departments in which he was employed are adamant that he was fit to serve, and nothing in the hiring process pointed to him being a danger. Well, not everyone was buying that. In fact, two reporters, Erin B. Logan and Summer Lin, discovered that there were red flags that came up in Edwards’s hiring process that should have kept him from becoming an officer. Logan and Summer wanted to dig deeper, so they employed the help of private investigator Jeff Pike to take a closer look into the case, and his discoveries were nothing short of astonishing.

Here’s what we know.

The Case
In November of 2022, the Riverside Police Department (PD) and Fire Department were dispatched to a house fire in Riverside, California. The bodies of three victims were found: Mark Winek, 69, Sharie Winek, 65, and their daughter Brooke Winek, 38. It was soon discovered that Brooke’s daughter. age 15 (Jane Doe, for privacy purposes), who also lived at the residence, was missing.

Jarringly, it became clear to Riverside PD that the fire was set intentionally, believed now to have been caused by Austin Lee Edwards. Edwards then allegedly fled the scene with Jane Doe and was later killed in a police shootout with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department—Jane Doe was found safe. But what led to this outcome?

Edwards was a former Virginia State Trooper who was then hired by the Washington County Virginia Sheriff’s Office. However, after a couple of weeks into starting his new job he drove to Riverside, California to meet a girl he had been in contact with. That girl was the teenager Jane Doe; however, she had no knowledge that Edwards was actually an adult. “He had a history of posing as a 17-year-old boy. He hadn’t only contacted this victim, but several other minor girls,” Pike details.

After talking for some time, Edwards drove from Virginia to California to meet her. “When he arrived at Jane Doe’s home, he showed his gun and badge—telling the mother and grandparents that he was there to investigate an online sex crime,” Pike tells us.

Once he gained entry to the house, Edwards slit Brooke Winek’s throat. Then, Edwards “tied the grandparents up and put plastic bags over their heads. The autopsies revealed that the grandparents had actually suffocated prior to the fire. These murders were very graphic, very gruesome,” Pike describes. After setting the house on fire, Edwards took Jane Doe into his car and drove off—luckily, neighbors had seen him fleeing with her.

“The cops were able to locate him fairly quickly. Edwards began shooting at police, including the police helicopter that was following him! Eventually they cornered him, so he ended up taking his own life,” Pike describes. Jane Doe was safe, and the case was seemingly solved. However, many people questioned how someone who could perform such a gruesome act of violence could even become a cop. That’s where Jeff Pike steps in.

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Bring in the PI
Shortly after the news of the crime got out, the Virginia State PD and Washington County Sheriff’s Office began what Pike calls damage control. “They put out statements once the case started hitting the media. They claimed that he was okay, and hadn’t experienced any problems with his background check,” Pike recounts.

However, before Pike was even brought into the investigation he questioned those statements’ validity. In fact, Pike was very vocal about the case on social media because Edwards only lived forty miles from him. Due to his proximity and his outspokenness, he was then contacted by reporters. “I was contacted by Logan and Lin from the Los Angeles Times, they wanted someone that worked in the area of the crime,” Pike explains.

According to Pike, the reporters were hearing rumors that the Virginia State PD was in possession of a polygraph test that was performed on Edwards before he was hired. Pike doesn’t go into specific details but tells us that he was able to reach out to his local contacts and get a copy fairly quickly. What transpired from the polygraph report was a litany of red flags.

“In the polygraph, Edwards admitted to previously being committed to a mental institution. He also went on to admit to drug use, academic dishonesty, and leaving a job without notice. Some of these don’t seem like a big deal, but it used to be when I was a policeman,” Pike recalls. In fact, Pike says that a polygraph is one of the first steps in the hiring process. Most people in Edwards’s situation wouldn’t have been able to move forward as an applicant.

Pike decided to do some further digging into both Edwards’s background and the police departments involved in hiring him. “I was able to find which mental institution he was committed to. It was then revealed to me that the reason he was there was because he threatened to kill his father,” Pike explains. This should have raised a huge red flag to both police departments, but instead it was swept under the rug.

In fact, the very same agency that hired him, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, was the one that handled the incident that committed Edwards to the mental institution. “By court order, Edwards wasn’t allowed to purchase, transport, or possess any firearms whatsoever. When hiring Edwards, his gun rights were revoked, and neither agency found that information,” Pike says.

Human Error or a Cover-Up?
The day following the murders, the Washington County Sheriff’s office allegedly tried to cover some of their own tracks. According to Pike, neighbors filmed officers entering Edwards’s home and taking items off the property. “We have no idea what they took out. However, I’m sure they took out anything that would be detrimental to their department,” Pike theorizes. In fact, after the officers were caught, they returned the next day, but this time with a search warrant.

However, the police department still insisted that they had done nothing wrong. The state police ran their own investigation, and said that a ‘human error’ led to Edwards’s hiring—a key punch error to be exact. “That was the narrative they decided to stick with, but at the end of the day, we know these agencies are desperate for employees,” speculates Pike.

Pike later discovered that a proper background check wasn’t performed for Edwards—despite what was revealed in his polygraph. However, there were more concerns raised after Edwards’s death.

After starting his investigation, Pike went on a couple of podcasts. There, it was revealed to him that other young girls were reaching out to the hosts, claiming to be Edwards’s other victims. “They provided me with these graphic text messages from Edwards. They were not just subtle compliments; he was propositioning them for sex. It was borderline sadomasochistic,” Pike tells us.

Despite all of the warnings Pike was able to uncover, the police departments still attest that Edwards’s hiring was an isolated incident—Pike doesn’t buy it. “If this was 30 years ago, I might be more inclined to believe them. But now, things that used to exclude you from being hired, like a DUI, don’t matter. These departments cut corners because they’re pressured to just push anyone through the process,” enlightens Pike.

Final Thoughts
As of the time of publishing, the victims’ family has filed a lawsuit against the Washington County Sheriff’s Office just a week before the first anniversary of the murders. However, it will be quite some time before the case goes to trial. Until then, Pike believes that this case can be an important learning moment for private investigators.

“If I have learned anything from this case, it’s that PIs need to develop their contacts. There’s always an incentive for someone to give you information. Whether that’s revenge, money, the need to do right—someone always has something to say,” Pike articulates. In fact, it’s Pike’s ever-growing list of resources that allowed him to uncover what both of the police departments attempted to keep under wraps.

“There’s an old saying that the cover-up is worse than the crime, but altogether, this crime is just horrendous,” Pike affirms. Pike believes that Edwards’s actions were months in the making, and the police could have very well been able to stop it had they paid closer attention to the officers under their employ. However, we will have to wait a long while before this case is resolved in the courts. This is a developing story, so subscribe to Working PI for updates.

About the Author
Kendra Budd is the Editor of Working PI magazine and the Marketing Coordinator for OREP. She graduated with a BA in Theatre and English from Western Washington University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Full Sail University.

We’re always listening. Send your story submission/idea to the Editor: kendra@orep.org.

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