A man from Virginia killed a family, took a teenager

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RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) — The suspect in a Southern California triple homicide who died in a shootout with police was a Virginia law enforcement officer who investigators believe drove across the country to meet with a teenage girl before killing three members of her family.

According to the Riverside Police Department, Austin Lee Edwards, 28, also allegedly set fire to the family’s home in Riverside, Calif., on the day of Friday’s shooting before leaving with the girl.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and Riverside police said in news releases that after they found him with the teenager later that day, deputies exchanged gunfire and shot Edwards.

Until last month, Edwards was a Virginia state trooper and was recently hired as a sheriff’s deputy in that state, spokespeople said.

Edwards, a resident of North Chesterfield, Va., met the girl online and obtained her personal information by tricking her with a false identity known as “catfishing,” Riverside police said.

The bodies found in the home were identified as the girl’s grandfather and mother: 69-year-old Mark Winek, his wife Shari Winek, 65, and their 38-year-old daughter, Brooke Winek. The police said that the exact causes of their deaths are being investigated.

The teenager was not injured and was taken into custody by the Riverside County Department of Human Services, Riverside police said.

Police in Riverside, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of downtown Los Angeles, received a call for a social security check Friday morning about a man and woman who were causing a disturbance near a car. Investigators later identified the two men as Edwards and the teenager, whose ages have not been released.

Authorities believe Edwards parked his car in a neighbor’s driveway, drove up to the home and killed the family members before driving off with the girl.

Dispatchers were warned about smoke and possible fire in several buildings from the accident. The Riverside Fire Department found three adults lying in the driveway.

The cause of the fire is under investigation, but it appears to have been deliberately set, police said.

Riverside authorities gave a description of Edwards’ car to law enforcement, and a few hours later police found the car containing Edwards and the teenager in Kells, an unincorporated area of ​​San Bernardino County. Edwards fired shots and was killed in return fire, police said.

Edwards was hired by the Virginia State Police and entered the police academy on July 6, 2021, Virginia State Police Public Affairs Manager Corinne Geller told The Associated Press in an email. He was promoted to the rank of paratrooper on January 21, 2022 and was assigned to Henrico County in the agency’s Richmond Division until his resignation on October 28.

Edwards was hired as a deputy in Washington County, Va., on Nov. 16 and began orientation to be assigned to the patrol division, according to a sheriff’s release. statement. During the hiring process, “neither employer disclosed any concerns, reprimands or internal investigations involving Edwards,” the statement said.

“It is shocking and saddening to the entire law enforcement community that such an evil and ungodly man could infiltrate law enforcement while hiding his true identity as a computer predator and killer. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Winek family, their friends, the officers and everyone affected by this heinous crime,” said Washington County Sheriff Blake Andes.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office assisted California authorities in the investigation.

Ron Smith, a longtime friend of the victims’ family, said he met Mark Winek three decades ago when they were both coaching baseball at Corona High School. Smith said Riverside Press-Enterprise that Winek was a beloved figure in the local high school athletic community, respected by athletes and coaches alike.

“It’s a shock,” Smith said. “He is a dear friend, there will be a hole in my heart that will be hard to fill.”

Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez called the incident “another horrifying reminder of the predators that exist online and prey on our children.”

“If you’ve already had a conversation with your kids about staying safe online and on social media, repeat it. If not, start it now to better protect them,” Gonzalez said.

An online fundraising campaign was launched on Monday to help cover funeral costs and support the families of the victims.

The abduction and killings resembled the 2013 abduction of 16-year-old Hannah Marie Anderson in National City, California. The bodies of the girl’s mother and brother were found in the burned house of the suspect, 40-year-old James DiMaggio. Hanna was found alive in Idaho, where DiMaggio was killed by FBI agents in a shootout.

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