The suspect, identified as 28-year-old Austin Lee Edwards, then proceeded to drive off with the girl after murdering her mother and grandparents, police said Sunday.
On Friday just after 11 a.m., police were first called to a home in Riverside for a welfare check of a distressed girl getting into a Red Kia Soul with a man, according to NBC News.
Welfare Check For Distressed Teen Turns Into Burning Home With Three Dead Bodies Inside
Responding officers received several phone calls about a fire just a few houses away from the home where the the welfare check had been requested.
After the Riverside Fire Department arrived on scene for the fire on the first floor, they found three adult bodies on the ground inside.
“Their bodies were pulled outside where it was determined they were victims of an apparent homicide,” the Riverside Police Department said.
Investigators were able to quickly determine that the girl from the welfare check call lived at the home where three people were found dead, the outlet reports.
Photo of Austin Lee Edwards, the suspect in the triple murder and kidnapping pic.twitter.com/8usLYilPvd
— Predator DC (@PredatorDCShow) November 28, 2022
During a preliminary investigation, authorities were able to determine the identity of the man she was with, who detectives later learned had been employed with the Virginia State Police before taking a more recent job with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, also in Virginia.
Authorities eventually tracked Edwards’ car several hours later, as he drove the teen to the unincorporated area of Kelso in San Bernardino County, where deputies caught up with him.
Catfishing Man Dies After Cops Return Gunfire, Girl Taken Into Social Services Protective Custody
Edwards then reportedly shot at deputies, who immediately returned fire.
He was pronounced dead at the scene, according to NBC News.
The girl, who was not harmed, was taken into protective custody of the the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services. Authorities were able to figure out that Edwards had “catfished” the teen girl online.
“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,” the Riverside Police Department said.
Authorities added that they believed Edwards obtained the girl’s personal information after developing an online relationship with the teen.
Edwards reportedly drove all the way cross-country from Virginia to California to visit the girl, where he parked his car in a neighbor’s driveway before walking to the teen’s home.
— Rick Montanez (@RickCBSLA) November 27, 2022
Victims Identified, Suspect’s Former Law Enforcement Employers Confirm His Employment
At some point, Edwards allegedly killed the girl’s mother, grandmother and grandfather before leaving the home with the teen and driving off, according to police.
The outlet reports that the slain family members were identified by authorities as 69-year-old Mark Winek; his wife, 65-year-old Sharie Winek; and their daughter, 38-year-old Brooke Winek, who was also the girl’s mother.
An autopsy will reveal the exact cause of their deaths, which was still pending as of Monday. Authorities added the fire was also under investigation, with police claiming it appeared to have been intentionally start.
Meanwhile, the Virginia State Police confirmed that Edwards enrolled in its academy back on July 6, 2021 before graduating as a trooper earlier this year.
A spokesperson for the department declined to provide any further information regarding Edwards’ resignation, citing state law prevents law enforcement agencies from releasing anything other than a date of resignation, the outlet reports.
As of Monday, it was not immediately clear what role Edwards held within the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, with the sheriff’s office not immediately responding to requests for comment.
Investigation Ongoing, With Authorities Requesting Anyone With Any More Information To Come Forward
“Our hearts go out to the Winek family and their loved ones during this time of tremendous grief, as this is a tragedy for all Riversiders,” stated Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez. “This is 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.”
An investigation into the three deaths remains ongoing, according to authorities, who asks anyone with information to contact them. Those wishing to remain anonymous can email [email protected].
A GoFundMe set up on behalf of the family has raised $30,340 out of $100,000 goal as of Monday.