“Sextortion” prompted a former Virginia police officer to capture a teenage girl and kill her mother and grandparents in Southern California last week, police said at a news conference Wednesday.
Police believe Austin Lee Edwards, 28, a former Virginia State Police officer who worked for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, posed as a 17-year-old man online to speak to the girl, who lived in Riverside, California. said Police Chief Larry Gonzalez.
Edwards had traveled from Virginia to Riverside and was killed in a shootout with police.
“This is yet another horrifying reminder of the predators that exist online and that are preying on our children,” González said.
González said sextortion includes manipulating children for the purpose of having sexual conversations online, exchanging sexually explicit photos to use or possibly sell, or meeting in person.
“This type of victimization takes place on all platforms: social networks, messaging applications, gaming platforms, etcetera,” he said.
Common methods for facilitating this, González told reporters, include grooming tactics such as sexual talk or role-playing; requesting or sharing sexually explicit images; developing a relationship through compliments, discussing shared interests, and ‘liking’ their online posts; pretending to be younger; and offer or provide incentives for an ongoing relationship, such as alcohol, drugs, lodging, transportation, or food.
It was not immediately clear where the catfishing took place online or which, if any, of the above tactics Edwards employed beyond pretending to be younger.
A Riverside Police Department spokesperson did not immediately respond to follow-up inquiries from NBC News.
The girl’s aunt, Mychelle Blandin, 43, who is also the sister of the girl’s late mother, Brooke Winek, 38, and the girl’s late grandparents’ daughter, Mark Winek, 69, and 65 years. Sharie Winek told reporters Wednesday that the girl is 15 years old.
He is currently in the custody of Child Protective Services and receiving trauma counseling, a family friend said.
Police said they are “not describing it as a kidnapping at this time.”
“We still don’t know if she was threatened, coerced,” Riverside Police Department spokesman 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 Edwards’ intent with the girl after the fire and murders, authorities said.
Authorities have not yet released a cause of death and autopsies have yet to be performed, Railsback said.
The spokesman added that police “have no reason to believe that a firearm was used to kill the victims.”
“It was very disturbing – we want to be sensitive to family members in how we describe to them and how their three loved ones are described to the public,” Railsback added. “It was obvious that they were killed, we know that.”
The Wineks’ bodies were discovered after officers were called to Riverside’s La Sierra South neighborhood shortly after 11 a.m. on Nov. 25. the police department said in a news release.
As officers responded, police began receiving calls about a structure fire just a few houses away from where the welfare call was reported.
The Riverside Fire Department arrived at the residence and found a fire on the first floor. When they entered, they discovered three adults lying on the ground, police said.
“Their bodies were taken outside where it was determined they were victims of an apparent homicide,” the Riverside Police Department said, adding that firefighters were able to put out the fire.
Edwards was accused of running off with the girl after the murders. Authorities tracked down his car several hours later as he was driving with the teen through San Bernardino County in the unincorporated area of Kelso.
When San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department deputies caught up with Edwards, the suspect fired at them, before at least one deputy fatally shot him, police said. Edwards was pronounced dead at the scene.
A Virginia State Police spokesperson said Edwards entered his academy on July 6, 2021, and graduated as a soldier on January 21 of this year. He was assigned to Henrico County, which is within the Richmond Division, they said, before his resignation in October.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release Monday that deputies hired Edwards on November 16 and that he had “recently begun orientation for assignment to the patrol division.”
A spokesman for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to a question about his position with the office.
Blandin and González urged parents Wednesday to talk to their children about the dangers of talking to strangers online.
“Please, parents, guardians, when you talk to your children about the dangers of their actions online, use us as a reference,” Blandin said. “Tell our story to help your parenting, not out of fear, but as an example of something that happened.”