The former Virginia trooper accused of killing three members of a California family after “catfishing” their teenage relative drove to the state to visit a longtime girlfriend days before the triple homicide, a close friend of the ex-trooper said in an exclusive interview with NBC News.
The friend, Tommy Gates, declined to identify the girlfriend but said the two had met online. He believed she was two to three years younger than Austin Edwards, 28. A home that Edwards recently purchased in Saltville, in southwestern Virginia, was intended 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 what plans Edwards made in the days and weeks before arriving in Riverside, east of Los Angeles, where he was accused of killing a single mother and her parents, and then driving off with the woman's 15-year-old daughter on Nov. 25 as their house burned.
In interviews, people who knew Edwards struggled to comprehend how he could have carried out the crimes. A woman who’d gone to community college with him and remained his friend was hospitalized under the weight of what her father described as crushing guilt.
“If she could have seen it, she could have done something to stop it,” said the woman's father, Rodney Shortridge. His daughter declined to comment.
Gates, 27, said he learned of the trip to California from Edwards’ father the day after the killings, when the father believed his son was missing, Gates said. Efforts to reach Edwards’ family have been unsuccessful.
Gates wasn’t sure where in California the girlfriend lived but said her home was not in Riverside, where the killings occurred.
Asked about the visit, Ryan Railsback, spokesman for the Riverside Police Department, said Thursday that investigators were trying to figure out Edwards’ plans but declined to comment further.
It isn’t clear 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. Gates said he didn't know about the alleged scheme.
"None of us had any idea," said the second close friend, who asked not to be identified because he feared association with Edwards.
Authorities have identified the victims as Brooke Winek, 38; Mark Winek, 69; and Sharie Winek, 65. Their cause of death has not been released. The teenage girl was not injured. Edwards died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Railsback said.
Speaking to reporters late last month, a family member of the Wineks, Mychelle Blandin, described her sister Brooke as a devoted single mom doing her best to raise her two children; her father, Mark, as a high school baseball and softball coach "with a big caring heart;" and her mother, Sharie, the matriarch of the family, who "did anything and everything for anyone.
"They are forever in my heart and I miss them deeply," she said, adding: "We have some solace that this person will never harm anyone again, especially a minor."
A 'spontaneous' trip
Edwards had traveled to California because he had some vacation time for Thanksgiving, the second close friend of Edwards said.
He "decided to up and go see her since he had just enough time to drive there and back before he had to work the following Monday,” said 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 ahead of time, a move Gates described as unusual. The second friend said he learned of it from Edwards' father after Edwards didn't let him know he was heading home.
Believing Edwards was missing, his friends reached out to his girlfriend, Gates said.
In a text message with the second close friend, the girlfriend described Edwards' trip as "spontaneous" and said everything had gone well, the second friend said.
"Nothing was unusual to her about his mannerisms or anything like that," he said.
To Gates, this made what happened next that much more awful and perplexing.
“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 ever do something like this?”
Planning for the future
The last time Gates saw Edwards was in early October, when he visited him in the Richmond area. Edwards, who’d graduated from the Virginia State Police academy in January, was working as a trooper in a county that surrounds the state’s capital city, the agency said.
The two went to a Renaissance festival in Maryland and Edwards seemed “as happy as could be — openly,” Gates said. “I don’t know what was in his heart and mind. But to other people he was acting cheery and happy.”
Before joining the academy, Edwards had dropped out of high school in Richlands, in 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, earning no certificates or degrees, a school spokesman said.
Shortridge, whose daughter also worked with Edwards at Walmart, recalled hosting a comic-con type event that Edwards attended and talking about his future with him.
“He was lower in the income level than your average people around here,” said Shortridge, a retired trucker who lives in nearby 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 out of that.”
Signs of trouble
In high school and several years after, Edwards was prone to bouts of depression, Gates said. In 2016 he was detained for a psychiatric hold after he threatened to kill his father, according to a police report obtained by the Los Angeles Times. According to Gates, Edwards hurt himself with a hatchet.
"He was going through a hard time," Gates said. "He really snapped that night."
Gates wasn't aware if Edwards had had other run-ins with law enforcement, and he said he'd been remorseful about the incident with his father.
After the killings, Virginia State Police said it found no "indicators of concern" in a background check for Edwards. After the Los Angeles Times article was published, the department said Wednesday that "human error resulted in an incomplete database query" during his hiring process.
“Although we believe this to be an isolated incident, steps are currently underway to ensure the error is not repeated going forward,” the department said.
The statement didn't mention the police report cited by the Los Angeles Times or provide additional details. NBC News has not confirmed the details of the report.
Chuck Russo, a criminal justice professor at American Public University System and former law enforcement officer who conducted background checks for two Florida agencies for nearly a decade, said the person doing the state police investigation may have forgotten to check the correct box in a management system or failed to reach out to the agency for a records check.
Russo described the human error as a "huge black eye" for authorities. He also called on the sheriff’s office in Washington County, where Edwards worked after he resigned from the state police, to publicly state it is reviewing hiring practices.
The sheriff, Blake Andis, has not responded to requests for comment.
'He took an oath to protect'
Edwards quit his post as a Virginia State Police trooper on Oct. 28 — 10 months after he graduated from the academy. He wanted to move back to southwestern Virginia, where he could be closer to friends and family, Gates said.
With savings and money that Gates believes Edwards obtained from a loan — and a goal of bringing his girlfriend east — he bought a home sight unseen for nearly $80,000 in Saltville.
Gates said he'd heard the girlfriend discuss the move to Virginia when he was with Edwards who had placed a call with her on speaker phone.
"He'd finally gotten his dream setup and had everything lined up to have the best life," he said. "Why would he want to end it all of a sudden?"
After Edwards moved in on Nov. 14, he covered the windows with what Jacob Gordon, who had sold him the house, described as tint that was likely from an auto shop. He also hung blackout curtains, Gordon said.
Gordon said he didn't know why Edwards had darkened his windows. Gates, who hadn't visited the house but planned to, didn't know what to make of it either.
"It's strange for him," he said. "He liked his privacy but he never did anything like that."
Railsback said Friday that authorities had still not analyzed the items recovered from Edwards' home.
Gates learned of the killings and alleged catfishing from news coverage. Initially, he said he didn't believe it. But as the story developed, and more details were released, he said he came to acknowledge that his best friend had likely done something horrific — even if he couldn't square the man he'd known for years with the criminal described by the victims' family member, Mychelle Blandin.
"This horrific event started with an inappropriate online romance between a predator and a child,” Blandin said, adding: "He took an oath to protect and yet he failed to do so. Instead, he preyed on the most vulnerable."