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Ex-trooper dies in shootout after killing family of teen he catfished, police say

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A Virginia law enforcement officer has been killed in a shootout with California deputies after allegedly killing the mother and grandparents of a teenage girl he catfished online, police said Sunday.

Austin Lee Edwards, a former Virginia State Police trooper who worked for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, was accused of driving off with the girl following the killings in the Southern California town of Riverside on Friday, police said.

It was not clear whether Edwards, 28, was a sworn officer when he allegedly killed 69-year-old Mark Winek; his wife, 65-year-old Sharie Winek; and their daughter, 38-year-old Brooke Winek. Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a statement, Andis said Edwards was hired earlier this month and was about to be assigned to the patrol division. Edwards resigned from the Virginia State Police on Oct. 28, a spokesman for the agency said.

The spokesperson declined to provide additional details, citing a state law that prohibits authorities from releasing anything after a layoff date.

The Wineks’ bodies were discovered after officers were called to Riverside’s La Sierra South neighborhood just after 11 a.m. to check on a girl who appeared distressed when she got into a red Kia Soul with a man, the spokeswoman said. city ​​police in a press release.

While officers were responding, police began receiving calls about a structural fire just a few houses away from where the welfare call was reported, they said.

The Riverside Fire Department arrived at the residence and found a fire on the first floor. When they entered, they found three adults on the floor, police said.

“Their bodies were pulled outside where they were determined to be the victims of an apparent murder,” Riverside police said, adding that firefighters were able to put out the fire.

During a preliminary investigation, detectives learned that the girl described in the first request for help lived in the house where the three people were found dead, police said.

Authorities were also able to identify the man she was seen with as Edwards, of North Chesterfield, Virginia.

Several hours later, authorities were able to track Edwards’ vehicle as he drove the teen through San Bernardino County in the unincorporated area of ​​Kelso.

When San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department deputies caught up with Edwards, the suspect fired gunshots at them before being fatally shot by at least one deputy sheriff, police said. Edwards was pronounced dead at the scene, they said.

The teen suffered no physical harm and was remanded in custody by the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services, police said.

“Detectives determined that Edwards had met the female teen through the common form of online deception known as ‘catfishing,’ in which someone pretends to be a different person than they really are,” the Riverside Police Department said.

Police said it was believed Edwards had developed an online relationship with the teen and was able to obtain her personal information.

He traveled from Virginia to Riverside where he parked his vehicle in a neighbor’s driveway and walked to the teen’s home, at one point killing her mother, grandfather and grandmother before walking the teen back to his vehicle and left, police said.

The cause and manner of death of the Wineks were still pending, the department said. The cause of the fire in the house is still being investigated, but according to the police, it appears to have been deliberately lit.

In a statement Monday, the Winek family thanked people for their love and support “during this horrific time in our lives. Mark, Sharie and Brooke were loving people who did not deserve this tragedy.”

The family is processing new information provided by authorities and will speak to local authorities at a press conference on Wednesday, the statement said.

In a Facebook post, a family member, Errick Winek, described his uncle as “an avid Notre Dame, Packer and Angel fan. best hugs who always made me feel like all was well.”

In a short interview, Errick Winek said that Mark Winek was a softball coach at Arlington High School in Riverside. The Riverside Unified School District did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In the post, Erick Winek described his aunt “as the most tireless, selfless person. Very few rival her devotion to her family and level of altruism.”

In an online fundraiser that Mark Winek’s older brother, John Winek, said was started by another family member, Brooke Winek was described as a “beloved single mom with the biggest heart.”

“She found her greatest joy in following her daughter in the Color Guard at Arlington High School,” the post read.

A spokesman for the Virginia State Police said Edwards entered the academy on July 6, 2021, and graduated as a trooper on January 21 of this year. He was assigned to Henrico County, which is part of the Richmond Division, they said, before stepping down in October.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement that Edwards was hired on Nov. 16 and has recently begun orientation there. The bureau was preparing to assign him to the patrol division.

“Previous employers and the Virginia State Police were contacted during the hiring process,” the sheriff’s office said, “but no employer disclosed any issues, reprimands or internal investigations related to Edwards.”

The agency said it is currently assisting the Riverside Police Department in California with its investigation.

“It is shocking and saddening to the entire law enforcement community that such a bad and evil person is able to infiltrate law enforcement while hiding his true identity as a computer predator and murderer,” said Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis.

Police say the investigation into the incident is continuing. They asked anyone with information to contact them and said those who wish to remain anonymous can email [email protected]

Riverside police chief Larry Gonzalez, in a statement about the triple homicide, encouraged families to talk to their children about safe internet use.

“Our thoughts go out to the Winek family and their loved ones at this time of immense sadness as this is a tragedy for all Riversiders,” he said. “This is another horrifying reminder of the predators that exist online and prey on our children.”

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