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 caught online, police say sunday.
The worker had left with the girl after the killings, police said.
Officers were first called to the La Sierra South neighborhood of Riverside, California just after 11 a.m. on Friday to check on the well-being of a girl who appeared distressed as she got into a red Kia Soul with a man , the Riverside Police Department said in a news release.
As officers responded, police began receiving calls about a structural fire just a few houses from where the welfare call was reported, they said.
The Riverside Fire Department arrived at the residence to find a fire on the first floor. When they entered, they discovered three adult victims lying on the ground, police said.
“Their bodies were dragged outside where it was determined they were apparently victims of homicide,” the Riverside Police Department said, adding that firefighters were able to extinguish the blaze.
During a preliminary investigation, detectives discovered that the girl described in the initial welfare appeal had lived in the house where the three people were found dead, police said.
Authorities were also able to identify the man she was seen with as Austin Lee Edwards, 28, of North Chesterfield, Va., who detectives believe had worked for the Virginia State Police until until he was recently employed at the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia.
Several hours later, authorities were able to track Edwards’ vehicle as it drove with the teenager through San Bernardino County in the unincorporated area of Kelso.
When deputies from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department caught up to Edwards, the suspect shot them, before being shot by at least one deputy, police said. Edwards was pronounced dead at the scene, they said.
The teen was not injured and was taken into custody by the Riverside County Public Human Services Department, police said.
“Detectives have determined that Edwards met the teenager through the common form of online deception known as ‘catfishing’, where someone pretends to be a different person than they really are” , the Riverside Police Department said.
Police said it is believed Edwards developed an online relationship with the teenager and may have obtained her personal information.
He traveled from Virginia to Riverside, where he parked his vehicle in a neighbor’s driveway and drove to the teenager’s home, at one point killing her mother, grandfather and grandfather. mother before returning to her vehicle with the teen and driving off, police said.
The family members killed have been identified as Mark Winek, 69; his wife, Sharie Winek, 65; and their daughter, Brooke Winek, 38, police said. The exact cause and circumstances of their deaths are still unresolved, they said. The cause of the residence fire was also under investigation, but police said it appeared to have been started intentionally.
Mark Winek’s older brother, John Winek, declined to comment, saying in a brief phone call Monday that the family was still processing the murders. Further information will be released at a press conference with authorities on Wednesday, he said.
In an online fundraiser that John Winek said was started by another parent, Mark Winek was described as a ‘loving father, grandfather, uncle, brother and coach at Arlington High School’ .
The Riverside Unified School District did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Sharie Winek was a sweet and caring mother, grandmother, sister and aunt who loved spending time with her family,” the relative wrote in the fundraiser. “Brooke Winek was a beloved single mother with the biggest heart and found her greatest joy in following her daughter into the Color Guard at Arlington High School.”
A Virginia State Police spokesperson said Edwards entered his academy on July 6, 2021 and graduated as a private on January 21 of this year. He was assigned to Henrico County, part of the Richmond Division, they said, before resigning Oct. 28. Asked for more information about the circumstances surrounding Edwards’ resignation, the spokesperson said state law prohibits state agencies from posting anything other than a resignation date.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that Edwards was hired Nov. 16 and recently began orientation there. The office was about to assign him to the patrol division.
“Former employers and the Virginia State Police were contacted during the hiring process,” the sheriff’s office said, “however, no employer disclosed any issues, reprimands, or internal investigations. concerning Edwards”.
The agency said it is currently assisting the Riverside Police Department in California with this investigation.
“It is shocking and saddening to the entire law enforcement community that such an evil and wicked person can infiltrate law enforcement while hiding his true identity as a cyber predator and murderer,” the sheriff said. of Washington County, Blake Andis.
Police said the investigation into the incident is still ongoing. They asked anyone with information to contact them and said those who wished to remain anonymous could email RPDTips@RiversideCA.gov.
Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez encouraged families to talk to their children about using the internet safely in a split statement on the triple homicide.
“Our hearts go out to the Winek family and their loved ones at this time of immense grief, as this is a tragedy for all Riversiders,” he said. “This is yet another horrifying reminder of existing online predators preying on our children.”