Former VSP officer catfished California teen girl before murdering her family, police say

The suspect died in a shootout with police Friday

28-year-old Austin Lee Edwards of North Chesterfield, Virginia. (Riverside Police Department)

The suspect in a triple homicide in Southern California who died in a shootout with police Friday is believed to have driven across the country to meet a teenage girl before killing three members of her family, police said.

Austin Lee Edwards, 28, also likely set fire to the family’s home in Riverside, California, before leaving with the girl. Deputies from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department killed Edwards after locating him with the teenager later that day, police said.

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Edwards, 28, previously worked for the state police and a sheriff’s department in Virginia, authorities in California said.

Edwards, a resident of North Chesterfield, Virginia, met the girl online and obtained her personal information by deceiving her with a false identity, known as “catfishing,” the Riverside Police Department said.

The bodies found in the home were identified as the girl’s grandparents and mother — Mark Winek, 69, his wife, Sharie Winek, 65, and their 38-year-old daughter Brooke Winek. Police said the exact causes of their deaths remained under investigation.

The victims have been identified as Mark Winek, 69, his wife, Sharie Winek, 65, and their 38-year-old daughter Brooke Winek. (Riverside Police Department)

The teenager was unharmed and taken into protective custody by the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services.

Police in Riverside, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of downtown Los Angeles, received a call for a welfare check Friday morning concerning a man and woman involved in a disturbance near a car. Investigators later determined the two people were Edwards and the teenager, whose age was not released.

Authorities believe Edwards parked his vehicle in a neighbor’s driveway, walked to the home and killed the family members before leaving with the girl.

Dispatchers were alerted to smoke and a possible structure fire a few houses away from the disturbance. The Riverside Fire Department discovered three adults laying in the front entryway and took them outside, where rescue personnel “determined they were victims of an apparent homicide,” police said.

The cause of the fire was under investigation but appeared to have been “intentionally ignited,” police said.

Riverside authorities distributed a description of Edwards’ vehicle to law enforcement agencies and several hours later police located the car with Edwards and the teenager in Kelso, an unincorporated area of San Bernardino County. Edwards fired gunshots and was killed by deputies returning fire, police said.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office released a statement Monday morning, which can be found in full below:

At the time of his application for employment with the Washington County Virginia Sheriff’s Office, Austin Lee Edwards was employed with the Virginia State Police as a trooper, having previously completed the Virginia State Police Academy in January 2022.

Past employers and the Virginia State Police were contacted during the hiring processing; however, no employers disclosed any troubles, reprimands, or internal investigations pertaining to Edwards.

“It is shocking and sad to the entire law enforcement community that such an evil and wicked person could infiltrate law enforcement while concealing his true identity as a computer predator and murderer. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Winek family, their friends, officers, and all of those affected by this heinous crime,” said Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis.

Edwards was hired with this agency on November 16, 2022 and had recently began orientation to be assigned to the patrol division.

Washington County Virginia Sheriff’s Office

Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez called the case “yet another horrific reminder of the predators existing online who prey on our children.”

“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,” Gonzalez said.

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