The suspect in a triple homicide in Southern California who died in a shootout with police Friday is believed to have driven across the country to meet a teenage girl before killing three members of her family, police said.
Austin Lee Edwards, 28, also likely set fire to the family’s home in Riverside, California, before leaving with the girl. Deputies from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department killed Edwards after locating him with the teenager later that day, police said.
Until last month, Edwards was a Virginia State Police trooper, an agency spokesperson said.
Edwards, a resident of North Chesterfield, Virginia, met the girl online and obtained her personal information by deceiving her with a false identity, known as “catfishing,” the Riverside Police Department said.
The bodies found in the home were identified as the girl’s grandparents and mother — Mark Winek, 69, his wife, Sharie Winek, 65, and their 38-year-old daughter Brooke Winek. Police said the exact causes of their deaths remained under investigation.
The teenager was unharmed and taken into protective custody by the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services.
Police in Riverside, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of downtown Los Angeles, received a call for a welfare check Friday morning concerning a man and woman involved in a disturbance near a car. Investigators later determined the two people were Edwards and the teenager, whose age was not released.
Authorities believe Edwards parked his vehicle in a neighbor’s driveway, walked to the home and killed the family members before leaving with the girl.
Dispatchers were alerted to smoke and a possible structure fire a few houses away from the disturbance. The Riverside Fire Department discovered three adults laying in the front entryway and took them outside, where rescue personnel “determined they were victims of an apparent homicide,” police said.
The cause of the fire was under investigation, but appeared to have been “intentionally ignited,” police said.
Riverside authorities distributed a description of Edwards’ vehicle to law enforcement agencies and several hours later police located the car with Edwards and the teenager in Kelso, an unincorporated area of San Bernardino County. Edwards fired gunshots and was killed by deputies returning fire, police said.
Edwards was hired by the Virginia State Police and entered the police academy on July 6, 2021. He graduated as a trooper on Jan. 21, 2022, and was assigned to Henrico County within the agency’s Richmond Division until his resignation on Oct. 28, Virginia State Police Public Relations Manager Corinne Geller said in an email to The Associated Press.
Edwards also worked for the Washington County Sheriff’s Department in Virginia, authorities in California said. The sheriff’s department did not immediately respond to a request for additional information about Edwards.
Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez called the case “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,” Gonzalez said.