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The suspect in a triple homicide in Southern California who died in a shootout with police was a Virginia law enforcement officer who police believe drove across the country to meet a teenage girl before killing three members of her family.
Austin Lee Edwards, 28, also likely set fire to the family’s home in Riverside, California, on the day of the shooting Friday before leaving with the girl, the Riverside Police Department said in a news release.
Deputies exchanged gunfire with and fatally shot Edwards after locating him with the teenager later that day, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and Riverside Police said in news releases.
Until last month, Edwards was a Virginia State Police trooper, and was recently hired as a sheriff’s deputy in that state, spokespersons 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 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 exact causes of their deaths remain under investigation.
The teenager was unharmed and taken into protective custody by the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services, Riverside Police said.
Police in Riverside, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of downtown Los Angeles, received a call for a welfare check Friday morning concerning a man and woman involved in a disturbance near a car. Investigators later determined the two people were Edwards and the teenager, whose age was not released.
Authorities believe Edwards parked his vehicle in a neighbor’s driveway, walked to the home and killed the family members before leaving with the girl.
Dispatchers were alerted to smoke and a possible structure fire a few houses away from the disturbance. The Riverside Fire Department discovered three adults lying in the front entryway.
The cause of the fire was under investigation, but appeared to have been intentionally set, police said.
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 Kelso, an unincorporated area of San Bernardino County. Edwards fired gunshots and was killed by deputies returning 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 trooper on January 21, 2022, and was assigned to Henrico County within the agency’s Richmond Division until his resignation on Oct 28.
Edwards was hired as a deputy sheriff in Washington County, Virginia, on Nov 16, county public information officer Alicia Roland told the AP in an email.
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.