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Riverside triple homicide: Suspect was a Virginia officer who catfished a teen online

Riverside police say the man drove cross-country to abduct the girl, killing her mom and grandparents

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Firefighters and Riverside Police gather outside a burned home in Riverside, Calif.

Firefighters and Riverside Police gather outside a burned home in Riverside, Calif., on Friday, Nov. 25, 2022 following a house fire. Three bodies were found in the house which police are investigating as a homicide.

Will Lester, Associated Press

The suspect in a triple homicide who was killed in a gunfight with police was reportedly himself a law enforcement officer from Virginia who drove cross-country to meet a teenager he’d catfished online, before killing her mother and grandparents and abducting her.

Police officers in Riverside, California, were called to check the welfare of a young female who seemed in distress Friday as she was seen getting into a car with a male, and arrived to find the house burning and three members of a family dead, according to a police report.

In a news release, the Riverside Police Department identified the victims as Mark Winek, 69; his wife Sharie Winek, 65; and their daughter Brooke Winek, 38. Police said they were the grandparents and mother of the teen, whose distress prompted a witness to call the police.

The suspect, identified as Austin Lee Edwards, 28, was killed in an exchange of gunfire with police Friday night after he and the girl were spotted by local police in Kelso, an unincorporated section of San Bernardino County.

The Los Angeles Times said the girl was not physically harmed and was taken into protective custody by the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services.

“Detectives determined Edwards had met the female teenager through the common form of online deception known as ‘catfishing,’ where someone pretends to be a different person than they actually are,” authorities said in the release. “It is believed Edwards had developed an online relationship with the teen and obtained her personal information. He traveled from Virginia to Riverside where he parked his car in a neighbor’s driveway and walked into the teen’s home.”

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This photo provided by the Riverside Police Department shows Austin Lee Edwards, the suspect in a triple homicide in Southern California who died in a shootout with police Friday, Nov. 25, 2022. Edwards is believed to have driven across the country to meet a teenage girl before killing three members of her family, police said.

Riverside Police Department via Associated Press

The release added, “At some point, he murdered the teen’s grandfather, grandmother and mother before walking back to his vehicle with the teen and leaving. Detectives learned Edwards had worked for the Virginia State Police until recently employed at the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in the state of Virginia.”

According to The Associated Press, “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 trooper on Jan. 21, 2022, and was assigned to Henrico County within the agency’s Richmond Division until his resignation on Oct. 28.”

The Los Angeles Times was told by Corinne Geller, a Virginia state police spokesperson, that during the 15 months Edwards worked there, he “never exhibited any behaviors to trigger any internal administrative or criminal investigations.” And his background check and psychological evaluation didn’t raise “any indicators of concern,” she said.

He was hired in Washington County Nov. 16 and had begun his patrol duty orientation, according to a statement from the sheriff’s office.

“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,” Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis said in the release.

The AP said Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez described the case as “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,” he said.