Ex-Cop Dies in Shootout After Allegedly Grooming Teen Online, Murdering Her Family
A former Virginia State Police trooper was killed in a shootout Sunday (Nov. 27) in California after he allegedly murdered the mother and grandparents of a teenage girl he allegedly catfished online, according to NBC News.
The man, Austin Lee Edwards, reportedly drove off with the teen girl after committing the murders in Riverside, Calif., on Friday (Nov. 25).
Around 11AM Friday, authorities were called to do a welfare check on a "distressed" girl who was seen getting into a red Kia Soul with an unidentified man. During the welfare check, police began getting calls about a nearby house fire in the neighborhood.
The bodies of the three adults were found amidst a fire on the first floor of the home: 69-year-old Mark Winek; his wife, 65-year-old Sharie Winek; and their daughter, 38-year-old Brooke Winek — the grandfather, grandmother and mother of the kidnapped teenage girl.
Over the weekend, Edwards' car was tracked to San Bernardino County, where he engaged in a shootout with police and was fatally shot. The teen girl was taken into protective custody.
"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 in a statement.
Details about the alleged catfishing have not been released.
Police said that Edwards traveled from Virginia to the girl's home in California, where he parked at a neighbor's house before killing her grandparents and mother and kidnapping the girl.
NBC reports that while Edwards was apparently working for the Washington County Sheriff's Office, it is unclear if Edwards was still a sworn officer when he committed the crime.
Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis said in a statement that Edwards was hired in early November and was in the process of being assigned to a patrol position. Edwards allegedly resigned from the Virginia State Police Oct. 28.
The sheriff's office claimed that "no [past] employers disclosed any troubles, reprimands, or internal investigations pertaining to Edwards."
"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," Andis said.
"Mark, Sharie and Brooke were loving people who didn't deserve this tragedy," the Winek family said in a statement. The family will reportedly speak at a news conference Nov. 30 alongside law enforcement.
Family members have organized an online fundraiser. Brooke Winek is described as a "beloved single mother with the biggest heart" who "found her most immense joy in following her daughter in the Color Guard at Arlington High School."