A former Virginia police officer believed to have murdered the family of a Riverside teenager after “fishing” them online was killed in a shootout while trying to flee authorities, the police department said the city in a press release.
The suspect has been identified as Austin Lee Edwards, 28, of North Chesterfield, Virginia. Detectives learned that Edwards had worked for the Virginia State Police but resigned in October. Detectives added that he was “recently employed by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in the state of Virginia.”
Detectives said they believe Edwards met the teenager through “catfishing,” a form of online deception in which someone pretends to be someone else.
On Friday morning, authorities responded to the scene in the 11000 block of Price Court, near the 91 Freeway, in response to a welfare check regarding a man and woman involved in a disturbance near a car, the police officer said Riverside, Ryan Railsback.
Shortly thereafter, dispatchers were alerted to smoke and a possible fire where the disturbance may have started. Firefighters discovered three adult victims lying in the entryway of the burning home. When they dragged them outside, it was discovered they were victims of an apparent homicide, the press release said.
Detectives discovered that Edwards met the teenager through a common form of online deception known as “catfishing,” in which someone pretends to be a different person than they actually are.
Police said they believe Edwards formed an online relationship with the teenager and obtained their personal information. He traveled from Virginia to Riverside, where he parked his vehicle in a neighbor’s driveway and walked to the teenager’s home. At one point, he murdered the teenager’s grandfather, grandmother, and mother before walking back to his vehicle with the teenager and leaving.
Several hours after the bodies were found, Edwards was seen with the teenager in the unincorporated area of Kelso in San Bernardino County, police said.
According to the publication, Edwards exchanged gunfire with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Deputies who tried to stop him, was shot by deputies and later pronounced dead at the scene.
“It is shocking and saddening to the entire law enforcement community that such a wicked and evil individual is able to infiltrate law enforcement while hiding their true identity as a computer robber and murderer. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Winek family, their friends, officials and everyone affected by this heinous crime,” said Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis.
The teenager was unharmed and was later taken into protective custody by the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services.
The victims were identified by police as Mark Winek, 69, his wife Sharie Winek, 65, and their daughter Brooke Winek, 38. The exact cause and manner of her death are still unknown.
The cause of the house fire is still under investigation, but police said it appears to have been started deliberately.
“Our hearts go out to the Winek family and loved ones at this time of tremendous sadness as this is a tragedy for all Riversiders,” said Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez. “This is yet another terrifying reminder of the online predators that prey on our children. If you’ve already talked to your kids about staying safe online and on social media, repeat it. If not, start now to better protect them.”
Stay tuned to News Channel 3 for further updates on this investigation.
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