Three people found dead inside a burning California home on Friday were killed by a former Virginia state trooper and current county deputy who “catfished” a teen living in the home and kidnapped her after killing her family.
The Riverside Police Department identified the suspect — who was killed hours later in a shootout with police — as 28-year-old Austin Lee Edwards, who formerly worked in law enforcement at the Virginia State Police and Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia.
Police did not reveal in what capacity he worked there, but the Washington County Sheriff’s Office later said that it hired him as a deputy on November 16 and that he had been a state trooper until then.
As CrimeOnline previously reported, two women and a man were found dead with “clear evidence” they did not die in the fire after firefighters extinguished it. In a press release, Riverside police identified the victims as 69-year-old Mark Winek, his wife 65-year-old Sharie Winek, and their daughter 38-year-old Brooke Winek.
Police were initially called to the neighborhood on a report of a “girl who appeared distressed” getting into a vehicle with a man. Minutes later, calls came in regarding an apparent housefire a few doors down from the call about the girl.
The investigation soon uncovered that the girl was the teenage daughter of Brooke Winek and lived at the house where the bodies were found. San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputies later spotted Edwards’ car and pursued it. Edwards fired on the deputies, and later crashed. He was killed in the gunfire, and the coroner later determined he killed himself.
A woman said to have been “found safe” and taken to the hospital for treatment of injuries she suffered during the crash was the teen girl, who has not been identified. The girl was later placed into the custody of the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services.
Detectives said that Edwards met the girl online “through the common form of online deception known as ‘catfishing,’ where someone pretends to be a different person than they actually are.” After getting the girl’s personal information, he drove from Virginia to California and parked in the driveway a few doors down from where the girl lived, and where he was later seen putting her into his car.
Then he walked to the Wineks’ home and “at some point” killed the girl’s grandparents and mother before heading back to his car with the teenager.
“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,” said 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.”
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[Featured image: Left, Sherie and Mark Winek. Right, Brooke Winek/Riverside Police Department]