A Virginia man who “catfished” a California teen in a fraudulent online relationship allegedly murdered the girl’s mother and grandparents on the day after Thanksgiving, the Riverside Police department announced on Twitter.
According to a police statement, officers responded to a welfare check on the morning of Nov. 25 when a caller reported seeing a girl who appeared “distressed” while getting into a red Kia with a man, later identified as Austin Lee Edwards, 28, of North Chesterfield, Va.
While police were responding to this incident, a different caller reported a fire a few houses down. Upon entering the burning home, the Riverside Police Department found three deceased victims on the first floor of the house, and it was “determined they were victims of an apparent homicide,” per the statement.
The victims were identified as Mark Winek, 69; his wife, Sharie Winek, 65; and their daughter, 38-year-old Brooke Winek. The cause and manner of deaths remain pending for all three. The cause of the fire is also being investigated.
A few hours later, Edwards was spotted driving with the teen — since identified as the daughter of victim Brooke Winek — through an unincorporated area of San Bernardino County, according to a police summary of the incident. After a police chase in which gunfire was exchanged, Edwards died after being shot by an officer. The girl, who jumped out of the vehicle when it crashed during the chase, was taken into protective custody.
Edwards is believed to have “catfished” the girl in a deceptive online relationship in which he pretended to be someone else, police have since established.
Edwards allegedly found the girl’s address and showed up in Riverside after traveling thousands of miles from Virginia. He then “parked his vehicle in a neighbor’s driveway and walked to the teen’s home,” per the police statement. Afterward, he “murdered the teen’s grandfather, grandmother, and mother before walking back to his vehicle with the teen and leaving.”
Edwards previously worked for the Virginia State Police and was employed at the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia before the murders, according to the department.
“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. … This is yet another horrific reminder of the predators existing online who prey on our children,” said Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez.
A GoFundMe established for the family’s funeral expenses says Brooke Winek was “a beloved single mother with the biggest heart.”
The investigation is ongoing.