The man 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 and setting their house on fire, police said Sunday.
Austin Lee Edwards, 28, of North Chesterfield, Virginia, was killed in a shootout with San Bernardino County deputies, authorities said Saturday. He was sought in the deaths of three Riverside family members.
On Sunday the victims were identified as 69-year-old Mark Winek, his wife 65-year-old Sharie Winek, and their daughter 38-year-old Brooke Winek. The exact cause of their death was still pending. The cause of the house fire continues to be under investigation, but authorities said it appears to be intentionally set.
During the preliminary investigation, it was determined a young female described in the initial check of the welfare call to the home was a teenager who lived where the house fire and homicides occurred.
Hours after the fire, Edwards was driving with the teen through San Bernardino County when he was located by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. Edwards fired gunshots at deputies and at least one deputy returned fire, killing Edwards.
The teen was unharmed and placed into protective custody of the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services. Detectives say Edwards met the teenager through the common form of online deception known as “catfishing,” where someone pretends to be a different person than they actually are.
It is believed Edwards had developed an online relationship with the teen and obtained her personal information. He travelled from Virginia to Riverside, where he parked his vehicle in a neighbor’s driveway and walked to the teen’s home. At some point, he murdered the teen’s grandfather, grandmother, and mother before walking back to his vehicle with the teen and leaving.
Detectives learned Edwards had worked for the Virginia State Police until recently employed at the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in the state of Virginia.
“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. 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.”
The chain of events unfolded after Riverside police responded Friday at 10:30 a.m. to a disturbance call at the home in the 11200 block of Price Court. Officers received reports of a fire as they responded to the home.
Neighbors organized a vigil Saturday evening for the victims, whom they identified as a husband and wife in their 60s and their adult daughter.
“They are the light, the light of this community, and I’m so sad and sick to my stomach that this would even happen,” a neighbor told NBCLA.
Riverside police said there was clear evidence the people did not die as a result of the fire.
“This whole thing is complicated, and it’s going to take a lot to unravel,” Riverside Officer Ryan Railsback told the Daily News. “It’s still unraveling, and it’s going to take a bit of time.”
Riverside police is asking anyone with information in this case to call 951-351-6050.