Austin Lee Edwards, the 28-year-old former Virginia cop who drove across the country and killed three family members of a 15-year-old Riverside teenager, is said to have posed as a 17-year-old and “groomed” the minor.
Edwards allegedly traded gifts such as drugs, alcohol, gift cards, or even just compliments in exchange for sexually explicit photos of the teen, Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez said Wednesday at a news conference. The investigation is currently ongoing and it is unknown how long the online relationship between Edwards and the teenage girl lasted, nor which platforms were used.
Edwards is accused of “catfishing” the girl, in this case pretending to be a 17-year-old. He then drove across the country to her home in Riverside, where he killed her mother and grandparents, whose bodies were found in the house. Police say they believe he intentionally set fire to the home and drove off with the girl.
KCBS reports that a neighbor alerted the police after seeing a suspect—presumed to be Edwards—wearing a trench coat and a mask. He was also arguing with a crying, barefoot girl—believed to be the 15-year-old—before she got into Edwards’ car.
The abduction ended in a shootout with local police as he was stopped in San Bernardino County. An autopsy revealed that Austin died of a self-inflicted gunshot, according to Riverside PD.
The girl was not harmed and, according to officials, and is currently in the care of child protective services.
The three family members killed were identified as Mark Winek, 69, his wife, Sharie Winek, and their daughter, Brooke Winek, a single mother who is survived by her two teenage girls. The second daughter was reported to not be at home when the family was killed.
Detective Josh Ontko tells LAMag that the cause of death is still under investigation.
“[Mark] Winek was an esteemed coach for close to a decade at Arlington High School,” the Riverside Unified School District wrote in a statement. “His passion for the game and students will be extremely missed.”
Edwards’ time in law enforcement was short—less than a year—but during his application process, he passed physical, psychological, and written testing, in addition to a lie-detector test, Virginia State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller says.
Geller continued by assuring that during his time with the department, “he never exhibited any behaviors to trigger any internal administrative or criminal investigations.”
He resigned from the department on Oct. 28 and less than one month later, he was hired by the Washington County Virginia Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Blake Andis released a statement regarding 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 wrote. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the Winek family, their friends, officers, and all of those affected by this heinous crime.”
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