A Virginia law enforcement officer was killed in a shootout with officers in California after he allegedly killed the mother and grandparents of a teenage girl he had cheated on online, police said Sunday.
The worker had left with the girl after the killings, police said.
Officers were initially called to the La Sierra South neighborhood in Riverside, Calif., Friday shortly after 11 a.m. to check on the well-being of a girl who appeared distressed as she got into a red Kia Soul with a man, the Police Department said. of Riverside in a statement. Press release.
As officers responded, police began receiving calls about a structure fire just a few houses from where the welfare call was reported, they said.
The Riverside Fire Department arrived at the residence and found a fire on the first floor. When they entered, they discovered three adult victims 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.
During a preliminary investigation, detectives discovered that the girl described in the initial welfare call 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, Virginia, who detectives learned had worked for the Virginia State Police until recently being employed by the Sheriff’s Office. of Washington County in 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 apprehended Edwards, the suspect fired at them, before at least one deputy fatally shot him, police said. Edwards was pronounced dead at the scene, they said.
The teen was uninjured and was taken into the protective custody of the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services, police said.
“Detectives determined that Edwards had met the teen 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 Edwards was believed to have 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 one point killing her mother, grandfather and grandmother before returning to his vehicle with the teen and driving away, the police said. policeman.
The slain family members were identified as Mark Winek, 69; his wife, Sharie Winek, 65; and his daughter, Brooke Winek, 38, police said. The exact cause and manner of their deaths were still pending, they said. The cause of the fire at the residence was also under investigation, but police said it appeared to have been set on purpose.
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 resigning on Oct. 28. When asked for more information about the circumstances surrounding Edwards’ resignation, the spokesperson said state law prohibits state agencies from disclosing anything other than a resignation date.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that Edwards was hired on November 16 and recently began orientation there. The bureau was preparing to assign him to the patrol division.
“Previous 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 related to Edwards.”
The agency said it is currently assisting the Riverside Police Department in California with this investigation.
“It is shocking and saddening for the entire law enforcement community that such an evil and perverse individual could infiltrate law enforcement while hiding his true identity as a cyber predator and murderer,” Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis said.
Police said the investigation into the incident was still ongoing. They asked anyone with information to contact them and said those who wish to remain anonymous can email RPDTips@RiversideCA.gov.
Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez encouraged families to talk to their children about using the internet safely in a statement shared about the triple homicide.
“Our hearts go out to the Winek family and their loved ones during this time of tremendous grief as it is a tragedy for all Riversiders,” he said. “This is yet another horrifying reminder of the predators that exist online and prey on our children.”
phil mccausland Y lewis kamb contributed.