A Virginia law enforcement officer killed in a shootout with deputies in the Mojave Desert was "catfishing" a teen girl online before traveling across the country to meet her and killing three of her family members at their Southern California home, police said.
Austin Lee Edwards, 28, likely set fire to the family's Riverside home Friday before leaving with the teen girl, the Riverside Police Department said. Deputies exchanged gunfire with Edwards in the desert town of Needles, about 30 miles northwest of Riverside, before fatally shooting him.
The 15-year-old girl with him was not injured.
Until last month, Edwards was a Virginia State Police trooper, and was recently hired as a sheriff's deputy in that state, a spokesperson said.
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The deadly chain of events unfolded when the North Chesterfield, Virginia resident met the girl. whose age was not immediately available, online and obtained her personal information by deceiving her with a false identity, known as “catfishing,” Riverside Police said. Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez called the case “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,” Gonzalez said.
Authorities said it appears Edwards posed as a teenager when he communicated with the girl online. The exchanges might have included text messages and phone calls, police said.
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"This guy's a monster," said Riverside Police Department spokesman Ryan Railsback. "He's a predator."
"How long did this relationship last? When did it start? Their intentions. What she knew, what she didn't know. We're still trying to figure out was she coerced or forced to leave with him," Railsback said. "She's a victim because as any teenager or child, you're vulnerable. This grown man who's in law enforcement took advantage of that."
Riverside police received a call for a welfare check Friday morning about a man and woman involved in a disturbance near a car parked not far from a burning home. Investigators later determined the two people were Edwards and the teenager.
Three bodies found in the burning home were 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 causes of their deaths remain under investigation, but that they were not killed in the fire.
Neighbors organized a vigil Saturday for the victims. Flowers, candles and other items were left at a memorial outside their home.
Authorities said it appears Edwards parked his vehicle in a neighbor's driveway, walked to the home and killed the family members before leaving with the girl.
Riverside authorities distributed a description of Edwards' vehicle to law enforcement agencies and several hours later, police located the car with Edwards and the teenager in a remote unincorporated area of San Bernardino County. Edwards fired gunshots and was killed by deputies returning fire, police said.
The teenager was unharmed and taken into protective custody by the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services, Riverside Police said.
The girl has been speaking with investigators, Railsback said.
"We believe, at this point, that the suspect was the only one involved in the murders and in setting the fire," Railsback said, adding that authorities are looking into whether there are other potential victims.
Edwards was hired by Virginia State Police and entered the academy July 6, 2021. according to the agency. He graduated Jan. 21 as a trooper and was assigned to Henrico County before resigning in October. He began employment as a deputy sheriff's in Washington County, Virginia a few days before the slayings, Railsback said.
In a statement, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, said past employers and the Virginia State Police were contacted during the hiring process, but no employers "disclosed any troubles, reprimands, or internal investigations pertaining to Edwards."
He was hired with the county sheriff's office on Nov. 16.
"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," said Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the Winek family, their friends, officers, and all of those affected by this heinous crime."