Va. man accused of killing family members in Calif., kidnapping teen girl
Detectives learned Austin L. Edwards worked with Virginia State Police
RIVERSIDE, Ca. (WWBT) - A 28-year-old Virginia man, and member of law enforcement, is dead after a shootout with police in California.
NBC Los Angeles reports that the shootout was connected to a triple homicide in Riverside, California.
Police say Austin Lee Edwards - who had ties to Central Virginia - traveled from Virginia to Riverside to meet up with a teen girl he met online, “catfishing” her to believe he was someone else.
After arriving at the girl’s home in Riverside, police say he murdered her mother, Brooke Winek, 38, and her grandparents, 69-year-old Mark Winek and 65-year-old Sharie Winek.
Police believe Edwards set their house on fire, then kidnapped the teen by forcing her into his car, parked next door. Exactly how the family members were killed, and how the house was set on fire, are still under investigation.
Hours later, deputies tracked Edwards down with the girl in the car in the Mojave Desert. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department says Edwards fired gunshots at deputies. Deputies also fired.
Edwards was pronounced dead at the scene, and the girl was unharmed. She’s now in protective custody. Edwards last known address was in North Chesterfield.
In a statement to NBC12, Virginia State Police said Edwards was hired and joined the academy on July 6, 2021. Edwards graduated from the academy on Jan. 21, 2022 and was assigned to Henrico County, which is within the Richmond division.
Edwards resigned from his position at VSP on Oct. 28, 2022 and was hired by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office more than two weeks later. In a press release, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office said other employers and Virginia State Police were contacted during Edwards’ hiring process.
However, officials said “no 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. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Winek family, their friends, officers, and all of those affected by this heinous crime,” said Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis in a press release on Monday.
In a statement, Virginia State Police also said, “During Edwards’ short tenure with the department, he never exhibited any behaviors to trigger any internal administrative or criminal investigations.”
In a press release about the triple homicide investigation, Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez wrote the following statement:
“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. 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.”
John Richardson-Lauve, director of mental health and lead trauma and resilience educator with Child Savers, said open communication is essential when it comes to parents protecting their children when they’re on the web.
“So they could ask those questions because they don’t know everything about the world and it’s our job as parents and caregivers to teach them,” said Richardson-Lauve during an interview with NBC12.
On top of keeping a closer eye on social media, Richardson-Lauve also said it’s important for parents to monitor if their child’s behavior changes.
“If things are becoming too private, secretive, things that kids don’t want to share, that we encourage them, whether that’s to share with us as the parents, maybe there’s another trusted adult or trusted individual in that child’s life that they can feel safe sharing with while still maintaining their independence ,” he said.
A GoFundMe has been started to help with funeral expenses for the victims.
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