A Virginia law enforcement employee was killed in a shootout with deputies in California after he allegedly killed the mother and grandparents of a teenage girl he had catfished online, police said Sunday.
Austin Lee Edwards, a former trooper with the Virginia State Police who was working for the Washington County Sheriff's Office, was accused of driving off with the girl after the killings in the Southern California city of Riverside on Friday, police said.
It wasn't clear if Edwards, 28, was a sworn officer when he allegedly killed 69-year-old Mark Winek; his wife, 65-year-old Sharie Winek; and their daughter, 38-year-old Brooke Winek. Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a statement, Andis said Edwards was hired earlier this month and was in the process of being assigned to the patrol division. Edwards resigned from Virginia State Police on October 28, a spokesperson for the agency said.
The spokesperson declined to provide additional details, citing a state law that bars authorities from releasing anything beyond a resignation date.
The bodies of the Wineks were discovered after officers were called to Riverside's La Sierra South neighborhood just after 11 a.m. to check on the welfare of a girl who appeared distressed while getting into a red Kia Soul with a man, the city's police department said in a news release.
While officers were responding, police began to receive calls about a structural fire just a few houses away 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 adults lying on the ground, police said.
"Their bodies were pulled outside where it was determined they were victims of an apparent homicide," the Riverside Police Department said, adding that firefighters were able to put the fire out.
During a preliminary investigation, detectives found out that the girl described in the initial welfare call had lived at the house where the three people were found dead, police said.
Authorities were also able to identify the man she was seen with as Edwards, of North Chesterfield, Virginia.
Several hours later, authorities were able to track Edwards' vehicle as he was driving with the teen 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 fired gunshots at them, before being fatally shot by at least one deputy, police said. Edwards was pronounced dead at the scene, they said.
The teen was not physically harmed and was placed into protective custody of the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services, police said.
"Detectives determined Edwards had met the female teenager through the common form of online deception known as 'catfishing,' where someone pretends to be a different person than they actually are," the Riverside Police Department said.
Police said that it was believed Edwards had developed an online relationship with the teen 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 teen's home, at some point killing her mother, grandfather and grandmother before walking back to his vehicle with the teen and leaving, police said.
The cause and manner of deaths of the Wineks were still pending, the department said. The cause of the fire at the residence was also still under investigation, but police said it appeared to have been set.
In a statement Monday, the Winek family thanked people for their love and support "during this horrific time in our lives. Mark, Sharie and Brooke were loving people who didn't deserve this tragedy."
The family is processing new information provided by authorities and will speak at a news conference Wednesday with local authorities, the statement said.
In a Facebook post, a relative, Errick Winek, described his uncle as "an avid Notre Dame, Packer, and Angel fan. He never faulted me despite wearing Dodger blue in the spring and attending the university of a hated rival. He gave the best hugs that always made me feel like everything was right."
In a brief interview, Errick Winek said Mark Winek was a softball coach at Arlington High School in Riverside. The Riverside Unified School District did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the post, Erick Winek described his aunt "as the most tirelessly, selfless person. Very few rival her devotion to her family and level of altruism."
In an online fundraiser that Mark Winek's older brother, John Winek, said was started by another relative, Brooke Winek was described as a "beloved single mother with the biggest heart."
"She found her most immense joy in following her daughter in the Color Guard at Arlington High School," the post said.
A spokesperson for the Virginia State Police said Edwards entered its academy on July 6, 2021, and graduated as a trooper on Jan. 21 of this year. He was assigned to Henrico County, which is within the Richmond Division, they said, before his October resignation.
The Washington County Sheriff's Office said in a statement that Edwards was hired on Nov. 16 and recently began orientation there. The office was getting ready to assign him to the patrol division.
"Past employers and the Virginia State Police were contacted during the hiring processing," the sheriff's office said, "however, no employers disclosed any troubles, reprimands, or internal investigations pertaining to Edwards."
The agency said it is currently assisting the Riverside Police Department in California with its investigation.
“It is shocking and sad to the entire law enforcement community that such an evil and wicked person could infiltrate law enforcement while concealing his true identity as a computer predator and murderer," Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis said.
Police said the investigation into the incident was continuing. They asked anyone with information to contact them and said those wishing to remain anonymous can email RPDTips@RiversideCA.gov.
Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez, in a statement shared about the triple homicide, encouraged families to talk to their children about how to use the internet safely.
“Our hearts go out to the Winek family and their loved ones during this time of tremendous grief, as this is a tragedy for all Riversiders,” he said. “This is yet another horrific reminder of the predators existing online who prey on our children."