Riverside Police officers were dispatched on Friday to check on the well-being of a young woman who appeared distraught as she got into a red car with a man, Poice said a few doors down from where the welfare check originated .
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.
A preliminary investigation revealed the young woman described in the initial call was a teenager who lived where the house fire and killings took place, police said.
The man she was accompanying was eventually identified as Austin Lee Edwards, 28, of North Chesterfield, Virginia, according to the publication.
Detectives said they believe Edwards met the teenager through the common form of online deception known as “catfishing,” in which someone pretends to be a different person than they actually are.
According to police, Edwards had established an online relationship with the teenager and obtained their personal information. He then traveled from Virginia to Riverside, where he parked his vehicle in a neighbor’s driveway and walked to the teen’s home, the press release said. At one point, authorities believe that Edwards murdered the teenager’s grandfather, grandmother, and mother before walking the teenager back to his vehicle and leaving.
Several hours after the bodies were found, Edwards was seen driving through San Bernardino County with the teen, 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.
The teenager was unharmed and was later taken into protective custody by the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services, police said.
Edwards resigned from the Virginia State Police in October, according to the agency. Detectives in California learned that he was “recently employed by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in the state of Virginia.”
“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,” Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis said.
The victims were identified 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 remains under investigation, although it appears it was ignited on purpose, the press release said.
“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,” City Police Chief Larry Gonzalez said in the release.
“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, do it again. If not, start now to better protect them.”