The day after Thanksgiving this year truly was a black Friday for one California community after a Virginia state trooper allegedly drove across the country and abducted a California teenager he had catfished online, murdered her family, and set her home on fire.
Just before 11 a.m. on Friday morning, police in Riverside, California, were asked to conduct a welfare check on a man and a young woman who seemed to be having “some type of disturbance” as she got into his car. The young woman turned out to be a teenager whose name and age have not been released. The man turned out to be 28-year-old Austin Lee Edwards, a Virginia cop who had allegedly catfished — that is, deliberately misrepresented himself to — the girl online.
At about the same time, police began receiving reports about a house fire in the same vicinity. The fire was coming from the home the teen girl shared with her mother, 38-year-old Brooke Winek, and her grandparents, Sharie Winek, 65, and Mark Winek, 69. When fire fighters arrived on the scene, they made a gruesome discovery: Brooke, Sharie, and Mark Winek all lay inert in the front hallway. Officials transported them outside and determined that the three “were victims of an apparent homicide.”
Though their cause of death has not yet been disclosed, reports claim that all three were bound. Investigators also claimed that the fire, contained mainly on the first floor, was likely “intentionally ignited.”
Man suspected in killings of 3 family member had ‘catfished’ Riverside teen
With three apparent homicide victims and a likely arson on their hands, police then began frantically searching for Edwards, the main suspect in the crimes, as well as the teen girl they believe Edwards abducted.
Through their investigation, police say they discovered that Edwards — who lived 2,600 miles away in North Chesterfield, Virginia — had established a relationship with the teen online by feeding her false information about himself. Police called Edwards a “con man” who told the girl he was a teenager so that he could gain her trust and glean personal information about her.
When he arrived to meet up with the girl on Friday, he supposedly parked his red Kia Soul in a neighbor’s driveway and walked into the girl’s house and, at some point, allegedly murdered the girl’s family and set fire to her home. Reports indicate that the girl got into Edwards’ car under duress.
Edwards and the teen then fled the scene. When officers with the San Bernardino County sheriff’s office finally caught up with Edwards several hours later in unincorporated Kelso, California, about 220 miles east of Los Angeles, they said that Edwards began firing at them. The officers then returned fire, and at least one shot struck Edwards fatally. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
The girl was unharmed and placed in the care of the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services.
According to the Daily Mail, Edwards graduated as a trooper from a Virginia police academy in January 2022 and worked as a state trooper in Henrico County until he resigned his position late last month for reasons unknown. He also worked for the Washington County sheriff’s department in Virginia.
Brooke Winek was said to be a loving single mother to two teenage daughters, and her father, Mark, was a beloved high school softball coach. Nephew Errick Winek described Mark’s wife, Sharie, as “the most tirelessly selfless person” and utterly devoted to “altruism” and her family.
“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,” stated Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez.
“This is yet another horrific reminder of the predators existing online who prey on our children,” Gonzalez continued. “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.”