Virginia man killed family and took teenagers away

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) – The suspect in a triple homicide in Southern California who died in a shootout with police was a Virginia police officer who investigators believe drove across the country to search a teenage girl meet before he killed three members of her family.

Austin Lee Edwards, 28, also likely set fire to the family’s Riverside, Calif., home on the day of Friday’s shooting before leaving with the girl, according to the Riverside Police Department.

The deputies exchanged gunfire with Edwards and fatally shot him after locating him with the teenager later in the day, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and Riverside Police said in press releases.

Until last month, Edwards was a trooper with the Virginia state police and was recently hired as the state’s deputy sheriff, spokesmen 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,” Riverside Police said.

The bodies found in the home have been 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 death are still under investigation.

The teenager was unharmed and was placed in protective custody by the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services, Riverside Police said.

Police in Riverside, about 80 kilometers southeast of downtown Los Angeles, received a social security call Friday morning regarding a man and woman involved in a disturbance near a car. Investigators later determined that the two people were Edwards and the teenager, whose ages were not disclosed.

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

Dispatchers were alerted to smoke and a possible building fire a few houses down from the disturbance. Riverside Fire Department discovered three adults lying in the front entrance.

The cause of the fire is under investigation but appears to have been set intentionally, police said.

Riverside authorities distributed a description of Edwards’ vehicle to law enforcement, and a few hours later police located the car containing Edwards and the teenager in Kelso, an unincorporated area of ​​San Bernardino County. Edwards fired shots and was killed by officers who returned fire, police said.

Edwards was hired by the Virginia State Police and entered the police academy on July 6, 2021, Virginia State Police public relations manager Corinne Geller told The Associated Press in an email. He graduated as a soldier on January 21, 2022, and was assigned to Henrico County within the agency’s Richmond Division until his retirement on October 28.

Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for the state police, said that during his 15-month tenure there, Edwards “never engaged in any conduct that would have sparked an internal administrative or criminal investigation.” During his background and psychological tests, there were “no signs of concern,” she told the Los Angeles Times.

Edwards was hired as a deputy in Washington County, Virginia on Nov. 16 and had begun orientation to be assigned to the patrol department, the sheriff’s office said in a statement. During the hiring process, “no employer disclosed any issues, reprimands or internal investigations related to Edwards,” the statement said.

“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 Washington County Sheriff’s Office assisted California authorities in the investigation.

Ron Smith, a longtime friend of the victims’ families, said he met Mark Winek three decades ago when they were both coaching baseball at Corona High School. Smith told Riverside Press-Enterprise that Winek is a popular figure in the local school sports community, respected by athletes and coaches alike.

“It’s a shock,” Smith said. “He’s a dear friend, there will be a hole in my heart that will be difficult to fill.”

Riverside Police Commissioner Larry Gonzalez called the case “another terrifying reminder of the online predators preying 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,” Gonzalez said.

An online fundraiser was launched on Monday to help cover funeral costs and support the victims’ families.

The kidnappings and killings were reminiscent of the 2013 kidnapping of 16-year-old Hannah Marie Anderson in National City, California. The bodies of the girl’s mother and brother were found in the burned home of the suspect, 40-year-old James DiMaggio. Hannah was found alive in Idaho, where DiMaggio was killed by FBI agents during a shootout.

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