The former Virginia State Police Trooper named as a suspect in California’s triple homicide may have “other victims out there”.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (WRIC) – A nationwide investigation is underway after authorities said three Riverside, California residents were murdered by a former Virginia State Police (VSP) soldier eventually killed in a shootout with the sheriff’s deputies.

According to the Riverside Police Department, officers were dispatched around 11:08 a.m. Friday to check on the well-being of a young girl who appeared distraught as she got into a red Kia Soul with a man in Riverside’s La Sierra South neighborhood . While at the scene, authorities said they received more calls about a building fire just a few houses down from the first welfare checkpoint.

The Riverside Fire Department responded first to the house fire and found three adult victims lying on the ground in the front entryway, according to the press release. Authorities said their bodies were taken outside, where it was determined they were victims of an apparent murder.

“We know it was a homicide based on what we found at the scene,” said Ryan Railsback, the Riverside Police Department’s public information officer. “We don’t want to go into detail just yet. We don’t think they were shot. We believe they were killed in some other way.”

Railsback said it would be some time before the coroner determined the exact cause and manner of death. Authorities said it was not currently known if the fire contributed to her death.

On Sunday the victims were identified as Mark Winek, 69; his wife, Sharie Winek, 65; and their daughter Brooke Winek, 38.

“This was a very complex investigation and it took our detectives some time to uncover all of these facts,” Railsback said. “What we found is this suspect, he contacted a young girl who lives here in Riverside. This was her family. At one point, he contacted her online via so-called catfishing. Basically, he posed as someone younger and probably someone else and formed an online relationship with her. He ended up getting some personal information — her home address — and then recently traveled over from Virginia.”

According to a press release, the suspect, identified as Austin Lee Edwards, 28, of North Chesterfield, parked his vehicle in a neighbor’s driveway and walked to the teenager’s home. At one point, authorities said he murdered her grandfather, grandmother, and mother before walking the teenager back to his vehicle and leaving.

Information about this triple murder and Edwards’ vehicle description was leaked to allied law enforcement agencies in California while detectives filed warrants for his arrest and attempted to locate him. A few hours later, authorities said he was driving through San Bernardino County with the teenager.

“We alerted the sheriff’s department out there, and then when they encountered him, the suspect shot them numerous times,” Railsback said. “A shootout involving a deputy ensued and the suspect was hit and pronounced dead at the scene.”

Austin Lee Edwards, 28, of North Chesterfield, is said to have murdered the teenager’s grandfather, grandmother and mother, according to authorities (Courtesy Virginia State Police)

Railsback said Edwards and the teenager were found in the unincorporated town of Kelso, California, which he described as a barren desert area with nothing for miles. He also said the teenager was unharmed and was rescued by deputies and is now in the care of the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services.

“We want everyone to speak up, and that’s one of the things that we’ve had someone, this predator from the state of Virginia, come all the way to California,” Railsback said. “It’s possible that there are other victims somewhere in our country.”

According to a VSP spokesman, Edwards was hired and joined the academy on July 6, 2021. He graduated as a soldier on January 21, 2022 and was assigned to Henrico County within the Richmond Division. However, he reportedly resigned on October 28, 2022.

VSP Public Relations Director Corinne Geller sent the following statement to 8News:

The Virginia State Police uses standardized performance evaluations for all sworn employees that include a personnel early intervention system. As a probationer [Austin] L. Edwards also received monthly performance reviews in accordance with department policies. During Edwards’ brief tenure with the department, he never engaged in any conduct designed to trigger internal administrative or criminal investigations.

The Virginia State Police also conducts a thorough background check as part of their mandatory hiring process for admission to the Academy. This background check requires passing written, psychological, and physical tests, as well as a pre-employment polygraph. At no point during this extensive process was there any sign of concern.

The Virginia State Police also fully complies with this Virginia code §15.2-1705, which requires disclosure of certain personnel files to law enforcement employers. In this case, no such records were to be disclosed.

The State Police assist California authorities with any requests necessary for their ongoing investigations.

8News also reached out to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Abingdon, Virginia, where Edwards was recently employed.

“It is shocking and saddening to the entire law enforcement community that such a vicious and evil individual is able to infiltrate law enforcement while hiding their true identity as a computer thief and murderer,” Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the Winek family, their friends, officers and everyone affected by this heinous crime.”

Authorities at that office said Edwards was still employed by VSP when he applied for a job in Washington County. According to a press release, previous employers and VSPs were contacted with the sheriff’s office during the hiring process, but no “issues, referrals, or internal investigations regarding Edwards” were disclosed. He was hired by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office on Nov. 16 and, according to authorities, had recently begun orientation to be assigned to the Patrol Department.

A press release from the sheriff’s office also noted that the agency is assisting the Riverside Police Department in investigating this incident.

Flowers left at the scene by local residents. (Courtesy of KTLA)

“There are still many pieces of this puzzle that we are working to put together,” Railsback said. “Our detectives are working closely with them to see if we can get much more into his background to find out who exactly this person was and who he became. This is just a tragic reminder of the dangers of online activity and social media with our children and that there are predators out there preying on our children and that is how this relationship began.”

According to a press release, the investigation is ongoing. Anyone with additional and relevant information is urged to contact Detective Josh Ontko at 951-353-7135 or [email protected]or detective Bryan Galbreath 951-353-7105 or [email protected]. If you wish to remain anonymous, you can contact us by e-mail [email protected].