RIVERSIDE, Calif. - A former Virginia state trooper was killed in a shootout with deputies after he traveled across the country and allegedly killed the mother and grandparents of a teenage girl he "catfished" online, police said.
According to California officials, the crime spree began shortly after 11 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 25. Riverside Police officers were called to a home in the 11200 block of Price Court for reports of a disturbance between a man and a teen girl. Officers said the teen "appeared distressed" getting into a red Kia Soul with a man, later identified as 28-year-old Austin Lee Edwards of North Chesterfield, Virginia.
Shortly after that call, the Riverside Fire Department received calls of a fire in a home nearby. Authorities would later learn that the house on fire was the girl's home. When firefighters entered the home, they found the girl's mother, 38-year-old Brooke Winek, and her grandparents, 69-year-old Mark Winek and 65-year-old Sharie Winek dead inside. Their bodies were pulled from the building and investigators determined that they had been killed.
PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Family and neighbors mourn Riverside triple murder victims
Several hours later, deputies in San Bernardino County located Edwards driving with the teen in an unincorporated area of Kelso, nearly 200 miles northeast of Riverside. When confronted, Edwards fired a gun at deputies, according to officials. Edwards was shot and pronounced dead at the scene. According to a coroner's report, Edwards died by suicide after a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The teen, who was in the car, was unharmed. She was taken into protective custody.
According to officials, Edwards met the girl online and "catfished" her, pretending to be someone he wasn't. After he developed a relationship with her, authorities said Edwards got her personal info and traveled from Virginia to Riverside to see her. Edwards allegedly parked his car in a neighbor's driveway, walked to the girl's home, and murder her mom and grandparents before leaving with the teen.
Officials said Edwards had worked for the Virginia State Police and until recently was employed at the Washington County Sheriff's Office in Virginia.
The Virginia Police Department has since released a statement saying Edwards was hired and entered the academy July 6, 2021. He graduated Jan. 21, 2022 as a trooper and was assigned to Henrico County, which is within the Richmond Division, the department said. Edwards resigned on Oct. 28, 2022, according to Virginia PD.
Dozens of people came to a vigil Saturday to show support for the family.
"This is truly amazing to see all of you out here supporting and giving us strength. We really need it and we are really appreciative. You are going to keep my family's legacy in your hearts and spread the love. Thank you for being here, honoring my family," said a family member who is not being identified at this time.
Neighbors described the Wineks as "loving." A GoFundMe campaign has been established to help the family with funeral expenses.
Investigators said they're still investigating the cause of the fire, but say they believe it was set intentionally, though they have not said if they believe Edwards set the fire.
"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," Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez said in a statement.
Sharie Winek (left), Mark Winek (center) and Brooke Winek (right) were identified by family as the three found dead in a Riverside home.
"This is yet another horrific reminder of the predators existing online who prey on our children," he added. "If you’ve already had a conversation with your kids on how to be safe online and on social media, have it again. If not, start it now to better protect them."