Austin Lee Edwards former Virginia state trooper killed in police shoot out after catfishing Riverside, California teen girl and killing 3 of her family members.
A former Virginia state trooper was shot dead in a shoot out with California authorities after allegedly kidnapped a California teenage girl he had been catfishing online — after murdering her family, according to police.
Authorities say Austin Lee Edwards, 28, of Chesterfield drove more than 2,500 miles across the country to Riverside to meet the teen Friday.
Edwards then allegedly killed the girl’s grandparents and mom, set fire to their home, and took off with the victim.
Deputies from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department tracked down Edwards and fatally shot him later that day during a shootout, according to law enforcement.
The juvenile victim who was found with Edwards was unharmed and taken into protective custody by the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services.
Distressed girl on the street leads to police welfare call
Edwards, from North Chesterfield, Virginia, met the girl online and obtained her personal information by passing himself off as someone else, in a practice commonly known as ‘catfishing,’ the Riverside Police Department said in a press release.
It is unclear how long the two were communicating and the tenor of their ‘relationship.’
The incident unfolded just after 11 a.m. Friday when police in Riverside got a call for a welfare check concerning a young woman who ‘appeared distressed’ when getting into a red Kia Soul in the 11200 block of Price Court.
While officers were responding, dispatchers were then alerted to smoke and a possible fire a few houses away from where police were called for the welfare check.
The Riverside Fire Department discovered three adults lying in the front entryway and took them outside, where first responders ‘determined they were victims of an apparent homicide,’ police said.
Investigators later determined that the young woman described in the initial welfare call had lived at the house where the three people were found dead, police said.
The bodies found in the scorched Riverside home were identified as the abducted teen’s grandparents and mother — Mark Winek, 69, his wife, Sharie Winek, 65, and their 38-year-old daughter Brooke Winek.
‘We had a grandmother, grandfather and a mother of this teen murdered by this suspect who traveled from across the country for, most likely the sexual exploitation of this teenager,’ Officer Ryan Railsback told ABC 7.
Police have not revealed their causes of death as of Monday but they believe Edwards traveled across the country, parked his car in a neighbor’s driveway, walked to the teen’s home and killed her family before leaving with the girl.
The cause of the fire was under investigation, but it appeared to have been ‘intentionally ignited,’ police said. It is unclear if the grandparents and mother were killed before the fire was allegedly set.
Riverside authorities distributed a description of Edwards’ car to law enforcement agencies and several hours later police located the car with Edwards and the teenager in Kelso in San Bernardino County.
Edwards fired gunshots and was killed by deputies who returned fire, police said.
Edwards was hired by the Virginia State Police and entered the police academy on July 6, 2021. He graduated as a trooper on Jan. 21, 2022, and was assigned to Henrico County within the agency’s Richmond Division until his resignation on Oct. 28, a month before this weekend’s deadly shooting.
Why did cop resign month before driving across country to abduct girl?
Edwards also worked for the Washington County Sheriff’s Department in Virginia, authorities in California said. It remained unclear what led to the man resigning his post with Virginia state police.
Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez called the case ‘yet another horrific reminder of the predators existing online who prey on our children.’
During a vigil held Saturday, friends and neighbors described the Wineks as a caring and loving family who were deeply involved in their community.
‘You can’t ask for a better friend than Mark,’ Ron Smith, Mark Winek’s friend of 30 years, told the Mercury News. ‘There’s going to be a hole in my heart that’s going to be hard to fill.’
Authorities have since sought to discover if Edwards had been talking to any other underage female individuals.