Riverside, California – The suspect in a Southern California triple homicide who died in a shootout with authorities was a Virginia police officer who investigators say traveled across the country to meet a teenage girl before killing him. three members of the young woman’s family.
Austin Lee Edwards, 28, also likely set fire to the family’s Riverside, Calif., home on Friday, the day of the shooting, before driving off with the teen, according to the Riverside Police Department.
San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies and Riverside police said in news releases that after locating Edwards with the teenager, they exchanged gunfire, killing Edwards.RELATED
Until last month, Edwards was a Virginia state trooper and was recently hired as a deputy sheriff in that state, spokespersons said.
Edwards, a resident of North Chesterfield, Virginia, met the girl online and obtained her personal information by misleading her with a false identity, known as “catfishing,” Riverside police said.This photo provided by the Riverside Police Department shows Austin Lee Edwards, the suspect in a Southern California triple homicide who was killed in a shootout with police, Friday, Nov. 25, 2022. Edwards is believed to have he crossed the country to meet a teenage girl before killing three members of her family, police said. (Riverside Police Department via AP)
The bodies found in the house were identified as the girl’s grandparents and mother: Mark Winek, 69; Sharie Winek, 65; and Brooke Winek, 38. Police said the exact causes of their deaths remain under investigation.
Authorities believe Edwards parked his vehicle in a neighbor’s driveway, drove to the home and killed family members before driving off with the girl. Later, she was alerted to a structure fire, and Riverside firefighters discovered three adults down in the driveway. The cause of the fire was being investigated, but it appeared to have been set on purpose, according to police.
The Riverside police – a city located about 80 kilometers southeast of downtown Los Angeles – received a call on Friday morning to check the well-being of a man and a woman involved in a disturbance near a car. Investigators later determined the two people were Edwards and the teen, whose age was not released.
Authorities distributed a description of Edwards’ vehicle to deputies who, hours later, located the car with the former officer and the teen in Kelso, an unincorporated area of San Bernardino County. Edwards fired and was killed by officers who returned fire, according to police.
According to Riverside Police, the teen was uninjured and was taken into protective custody by the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services.
Edwards was hired by the Virginia State Police and entered the police academy on July 6, 2021, Virginia State Police public relations manager Corinne Geller told The Associated Press in an email. He graduated as a police officer on January 21, 2022, and was assigned to Henrico County, within the agency’s Richmond Division, until his resignation on October 28.
Geller said that during the 15 months that Edwards was there, he “never displayed any behavior that would trigger any internal administrative or criminal investigation.” During background and psychological tests on him, there were “no indications of concern,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
Edwards was hired as a deputy sheriff in Washington County, Virginia, on November 16 and had begun orientation for assignment to the patrol division, the sheriff’s office said in a statement. During the hiring process, “no employers disclosed any issues, reprimands, or internal investigations related to Edwards,” the statement said.
“It is shocking and sad for the entire law enforcement community that such an evil and perverse person could infiltrate law enforcement while hiding his true identity as a cyber predator and murderer. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Winek family, their friends, deputies and everyone affected by this heinous crime,” Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis said.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Office assisted California agencies in the investigation.Riverside firefighters and police gather outside a burned-out home in Riverside, California on Friday, November 25, 2022 after a structure fire. The bodies of three people were found in the house. (Los Angeles Time Out via AP) (Will Lester)
Ron Smith, a family friend of the victims, said he met Mark Winek three decades ago, when they were both baseball coaches at Corona High School. Smith told the Riverside Press-Enterprise that Winek was a beloved figure in the local school sports community, respected by athletes and coaches alike.
“It’s a shock,” Smith said. “He is a very dear friend, there is going to be a hole in my heart that is going to be difficult to fill.”
An online fundraising campaign was launched on Monday to help cover funeral expenses and support the families of the victims.
Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez called the case “another horrifying reminder of the predators out there on the internet who prey on our children.”
“If you’ve already had a conversation with your kids about being safe online and on social media, have it again. If not, start now to better protect them,” González said.
The case is reminiscent of the 2013 kidnapping of 16-year-old Hannah Marie Anderson in National City, California. The bodies of the girl’s mother and brother were found in the burned-out home of the suspect, 40-year-old James DiMaggio. Hannah was found alive in Idaho, where DiMaggio was gunned down by FBI agents during a shootout.