A Virginia law enforcement officer was killed in a shootout with deputies in California after he allegedly killed the mother and grandparents of a teenage girl he catfished online, police said Sunday.
Police said the worker drove away with the girl after the murder.
Officers were first called to the La Sierra South neighborhood in Riverside, California just after 11 a.m. Friday, the Riverside Police Department said in a news release.
While officers were responding, police began receiving calls about a building fire just a few houses away from where the public health call was issued.
Riverside Fire Department responded to the residence and contained the fire to the first floor. When they entered, they found the three adult victims lying on the floor, police said.
“Their bodies were pulled out where they were the victims of an apparent homicide,” the Riverside Police Department said, adding that firefighters were able to extinguish the flames.
During the initial investigation, detectives discovered that the girl described in the initial welfare call lived at the home where all three were found dead, police said.
Authorities were able to identify the man he was seen with as 28-year-old Austin Lee Edwards of North Chesterfield, Virginia, who worked for the Virginia State Police until recently working for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia.
Several hours later, authorities were able to track Edwards’ vehicle as he drove through San Bernardino County in the unincorporated area of Kelso.
When deputies with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department caught up to Edwards, the suspect opened fire on them, killing at least one deputy. Edwards was pronounced dead at the scene, they said.
The teenager was not injured and was taken into the protective custody of the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services, police said.
“Detectives have determined that Edwards met the young woman through a common online scam known as ‘catfishing’, where someone pretends to be someone different than they really are,” the Riverside Police Department said.
Police said it is believed Edwards developed an online relationship with the teenager and was able to obtain her personal information.
He traveled from Virginia to Riverside, where he parked his vehicle in a neighbor’s driveway and walked to the teenager’s home, killing her mother, grandparents and grandmother at times before returning to his vehicle with the teenager, police said.
The slain family members were identified as 69-year-old Mark Winek; He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Shari Winek; and their daughter, 38-year-old Brooke Winek, police said. The exact cause and manner of their death is still pending, they said. The cause of the fire at the residence is still under investigation, but it appears to have been deliberately ignited, police said.
A spokesperson for the Virginia State Police said Edwards entered his academy on July 6, 2021, and graduated as a trooper on January 21 of this year. He was assigned to Henrico County, which is within the Richmond division, he said before resigning on Oct. 28. Asked for more information about the circumstances surrounding Edwards’ resignation, a spokeswoman said state laws prevent the release of anything other than state agencies. Date of Resignation.
Edwards was hired on Nov. 16 and recently began orientation there, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement. The office was preparing to assign him to the patrol division.
“Past employers and the Virginia State Police were contacted during the hiring process,” the sheriff’s office said, “however, no employers have disclosed any issues, reprimands or internal investigations related to Edwards.”
The agency said it is currently assisting the Riverside Police Department in California with the investigation.
“It is shocking and saddening to the entire law enforcement community that such a vicious and evil individual could infiltrate law enforcement while hiding his true identity as a computer predator and murderer,” said Washington County Sheriff Blake Andes.
Police said investigations into the incident are still ongoing. They asked anyone with information to contact them, and those who wish to remain anonymous can email [email protected]
In a statement shared about the three murders, Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez encouraged families to talk to their children about how to use the Internet safely.
“Our hearts go out to the Wyneck family and their loved ones at this time of great tragedy, as this is a tragedy for all Riversiders,” he said. “It’s another terrifying reminder of the online predators who prey on our children.”
Phil McCausland And Lewis Comp Contributed.