The mystery deepens when friends reveal that the accused ‘catchman’ visited a teenager’s long-time girlfriend days before he killed his family

A close friend of the former soldier said in an exclusive interview with NBC that the former Virginia soldier was accused of murdering three members of a California family after their young relatives “catfished” the state to visit a longtime girlfriend days before the triple murder. News.

Friend, Tommy Gates, refused to reveal the identity of his girlfriend, but said the two met online. She believed she was two to three years younger than 28-year-old Austin Edwards. A house that Edwards recently bought in Saltville, southwest Virginia, was designed for the two of them, he said.

A second close friend said in a message that Edwards had been dating the woman for at least five years.

Gezi raises new questions about the horrific case; Including what plans Edwards had in the days and weeks before he arrived in Riverside, east of Los Angeles. On November 25, her 15-year-old daughter’s house burned down.

In interviews, people who knew Edwards had a hard time understanding how he could commit crimes. A woman who went to public university with him and remained her friend was hospitalized under the weight of what her father described as overwhelming guilt.

“If he could see, he could have done something to stop it,” said the woman’s father, Rodney Shortridge. His daughter declined to comment.

Gates, 27, said Edwards learned of his father’s trip to California the day after the murders, when the father believed his son was missing. Edwards’ attempts to reach his family were unsuccessful.

Gates wasn’t sure where his 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 understand Edwards’ plans but declined to comment further.

It’s not clear what connection, if any, exists with a “cat fishing” scheme that officials believe Edwards made to look like a 17-year-old to interact with the 15-year-old girl. Gates said he had no knowledge of the alleged plan.

“None of us had any idea,” said the second close friend, who asked not to be identified for fear of being associated with Edwards.

Authorities identified the victims as Brooke Winek, 38; Mark Winek, 69; and Sharie Winek, 65. Causes of death not disclosed. The young girl was not injured. Railsback said Edwards died of a gunshot wound to himself.

Speaking to reporters late last month, Mychelle Blandin, a family member of the Wineks, described her sister Brooke as a devoted single mother who did her best to raise her two children; as his father, Mark, a high school baseball and softball coach “with a big caring heart”; and Sharie, the head of the family, who “does anything and everything for everyone”.

“They are in my heart forever and I miss them so much,” he said. “We have some consolation that this person will never hurt anyone again, especially a minor.”

Mychelle Blandin speaks at a press conference following the deaths of family members Mark Winek, Sharie Winek and Brooke Winek.Watchara Phomicinda / The Orange County Record via AP file

A ‘spontaneous’ journey

Edwards’ second close friend said that Edwards went to California for Thanksgiving as it was some vacation time.

His friend said he “decided to go upstairs and see him, as he had enough time to commute there before he had to go to work the next Monday.”

Gates said it was Edwards’ first visit to meet his girlfriend, with whom he often plays League of Legends and Minecraft.

Neither Gates nor his second friend were unaware of the voyage, which Gates described as unusual. The second friend said she learned this from Edwards’ father after he didn’t let her know that Edwards was going home.

Gates said friends who believed Edwards was missing reached out to his girlfriend.

In a text message with his second close friend, his girlfriend described Edwards’ trip as “spontaneous,” and everything went well, the second friend said.

“There was nothing unusual for him in his dressage or anything like that,” he said.

According to Gates, this made what happened afterward even more terrifying and confusing.

“Obviously I’m angry,” Gates said. “He’s my friend, my best friend. Before all this, he was one of the people I would do anything for. How could he do such a thing?”

planning for the future

Gates had last seen Edwards when he visited the Richmond area in early October. Edwards, who graduated from the Virginia State Police academy in January, was working as a soldier in a county surrounding the state capitol, the agency said.

Gates said the duo went to a Renaissance festival in Maryland and Edwards looked “as happy as can be – clearly”. “I don’t know what’s in your heart and mind. But he treated other people cheerfully and happily.”

Gates said that before joining academia, Edwards dropped out of high school in Richlands, southwest Virginia, and earned his GED. According to Gates, he worked at Walmart and Lowe’s. Joined Southwest Virginia in 2017. A school spokesperson said Community College did not earn certificates or degrees.

Shortridge, whose daughter also works with Edwards at Walmart, recalled hosting a comic book-type event that Edwards attended and talking to him about his future.

“Incomes were lower than the average people here,” said Shortridge, a retired truck driver living near Tazewell. “Austin said that’s why he wanted to find a good job to lift his family out of poverty. I was like, man – I respect that.

Problem symptoms

Gates said that in high school and a few years later, Edwards was prone to bouts of depression. Inside He was detained for psychiatric arrest in 2016 after threatening to kill his father, according to a police report obtained by the Los Angeles Times. According to Gates, Edwards hurt himself with the axe.

“He was going through a tough time,” Gates said. “He went really crazy that night.”

Gates didn’t know if Edwards had other disagreements with law enforcement and said he regretted the incident with his father.

After the murders, Virginia State Police said they found no “show of concern” on Edwards’ background check. After the Los Angeles Times article was published, the department said on Wednesday that “human error in the hiring process caused an incomplete database query”.

“While we believe this is an isolated incident, steps are currently being taken to ensure that the mistake does not recur,” the ministry said.

The statement did not mention or provide additional details about the police report quoted by the Los Angeles Times. NBC News did not confirm the details of the report.

Chuck Russo, a criminal justice professor at the American Public University System and a former law enforcement officer who has been investigating the backgrounds of two Florida agencies for nearly a decade, said the state police investigator may have forgotten to tick the right box in a management system. or could not reach the agency for registration check.

Russo described human error as a “big black eye” for authorities. He also called the sheriff’s office in Washington County, where Edwards worked after resigning from the state police, to make it public that he was reviewing his hiring practices.

Sheriff Blake Andis did not respond to requests for comment.

‘Sworn to protect’

Edwards left the Virginia State Police service as a soldier 28-10 months after graduating from the academy. Gates said he wants to move back to southwestern Virginia, where he can be closer to friends and family.

With the savings and money that Edwards believed he had gotten from a loan – and with the goal of bringing his girlfriend east – Gates bought an unseen home in Saltville for about $80,000.

Gates said he overheard his girlfriend discussing moving to Virginia while she was with Edwards, who called her on a speaker phone.

“He finally got his dream layout and put everything in order to live the best life,” he said. “Why would you want to end it all of a sudden?”

After Edwards moved into the house on November 14, he covered the windows with what Jacob Gordon, who sold the house to him, described as paint likely bought from an auto shop. Gordon said he also hung blackout curtains.

Gordon said he didn’t know why Edwards had blacked out his windows. Gates, who had not visited the house but had planned to visit, did not know what to make of it.

“It’s weird for him,” she said. “She loved her privacy, but she never did anything like that.”

Railsback said Friday that authorities still have not analyzed items recovered from Edwards’ home.

Gates learned of the murders and the alleged catfishing from the news. At first he said he didn’t believe it. But as the story developed and more details were released, she said she began to admit that her best friend had probably done something terrible – even if she couldn’t compare the man she’d known for years to the criminal the victims described. ‘ family member, Mychelle Blandin.

“This horrific incident began with an inappropriate online love affair between a predator and a child,” Blandin said. “He swore to protect, but failed to do so. Instead, he preyed on the most vulnerable.”

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