"Sextortion" drove an ex-Virginia trooper’s catfishing of a teenage girl and killing of her mother and grandparents in Southern California last week, police said Wednesday.
Police believe Austin Lee Edwards, 28, a former trooper with the Virginia State Police who was working for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, portrayed himself as a 17-year-old online to engage with the girl, who lived in Riverside, California, Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez said at a news conference.
Edwards had traveled from Virginia to Riverside and was killed in a shootout with police.
“This is yet another horrific reminder of the predators existing online who prey on our children,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said sextortion includes grooming children with the goal of having sexual conversations online, trading sexually explicit photos to use or possibly sell, or meeting in person.
"This type of victimization takes place across every platform — social media, messaging apps, gaming platforms, etc.," he said.
Common methods of facilitating it, Gonzalez told reporters, include grooming tactics, such as sexual conversation or role-playing; asking for or sharing sexually explicit images; developing a rapport through compliments, discussing shared interests and “liking” their online posts; pretending to be younger; and offering or providing incentives for a continued relationship, such as alcohol, drugs, lodging, transportation or food.
It was not immediately clear where online the catfishing took place or which of those tactics, if any, Edwards used beyond pretending to be younger.
A Riverside police spokesperson did not immediately respond to follow-up inquiries.
Mychelle Blandin, 43, the girl’s aunt, told reporters Wednesday the girl is 15 years old. Winek is the sister of the girl’s late mother, Brooke Winek, 38, and the daughter of the girl’s late grandparents, Mark Winek, 69, and Sharie Winek, 65.
The girl is in the custody of Child Protective Services and receiving trauma counseling, a friend of the family said.
Police said they are "not describing it as a kidnapping at this point."
"We don't know yet if she was threatened, coerced," Riverside police spokesperson Ryan Railsback told reporters, adding that officials "have no reason to believe" she was involved in planning or carrying out the fire or the murders.
Police are also investigating what Edwards' intention was with the girl after the fire and murders, officials said.
Officials have not released the cause of death, and autopsies still need to be conducted, said Railsback, who said police have "no reason to believe he used a firearm to kill the victims."
"It was very disturbing — we want to be delicate with family members how we describe to them, and how it’s described to the public, how their three loved ones were found," he added. "It was obvious that they were murdered. We do know that."
The Wineks' bodies were discovered after officers were called to Riverside’s La Sierra South neighborhood just after 11 a.m. on Nov. 25. They were conducting a welfare check on a girl who appeared to be distressed as she was getting into a red Kia Soul with a man, police said in a news release.
While officers were responding, police began to get calls about a structural fire just a few houses away.
The Riverside Fire Department arrived at the residence to find a fire on the first floor. When firefighters entered, they discovered three adults lying on the ground, police said.
“Their bodies were pulled outside where it was determined they were victims of an apparent homicide,” the police department said, adding that firefighters were able to put the fire out.
Edwards was accused of driving off with the girl after the killings. Authorities tracked his car down several hours later as he was driving with her through San Bernardino County in the unincorporated area of Kelso.
When San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies caught up to Edwards, he fired gunshots at them before he was fatally shot by at least one deputy, police said. Edwards was pronounced dead at the scene.
A spokesperson for the Virginia State Police said Edwards entered its academy on July 6, 2021, and graduated as a trooper on Jan. 21. He was assigned to Henrico County, which is within the Richmond Division, the spokesperson said, before he resigned in October.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release Monday that officials hired Edwards on Nov. 16 and that he “had recently began orientation to be assigned to the patrol division.”
A spokesperson for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to a question about his title with the office.
Blandin and Gonzalez urged parents Wednesday to talk to their children about the dangers of talking to strangers online.
"Please, parents, guardians, when you are talking to your children about the dangers of their online actions, please use us as a reference," Blandin said. "Tell our story to help your parenting — not out of fear, but out of example of something that did happen."