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Riverside homicides: Virginia cop 'catfished' teen before murders, police say

Investigation into Riverside homicides continues; Detectives searching for motive
Investigation into Riverside homicides continues; Detectives searching for motive 02:16

The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department killed the suspect wanted in a gruesome triple homicide in Riverside after he opened fire on a SWAT team Friday.

According to authorities, on Friday, Nov. 25, deputies spotted 28-year-old Austin Lee Edwards driving a red Kia Soul south on Highway 247. Aircraft tracked Edwards until SWAT units could get in place. The planes followed Edwards onto Highway 62 and ultimately Kelso Cima Road before the deputies could get in position.

When the team intercepted the vehicle, Edwards continued to drive away, shooting at deputies as he tried to flee. 

Austin Edwards, 28, is accused of murdering three people in Riverside on Friday, Nov. 25, 2022. Riverside PD

He lost control of the car when he drove off the road. Shortly after the crash, Edwards exited the car and pointed his gun toward a sheriff's helicopter. Deputies shot Edwards. He was pronounced dead at the scene. 

Edwards was accused of murdering 69-year-old Mark Winek, 65-year-old Sharie Winek and 38-year-old Brooke Winek at their home, located on Price Court in Riverside.

He is also accused of taking a teenage girl, believed to be 15 years old, after murdering the three people. Riverside Police said Monday morning it was not an official case of kidnapping.

The girl was not harmed during the pursuit. She is currently in protective custody. Police said they did not believe she was involved in the murders or with setting the fire.

"We believe at this point that the suspect was the only one involved in the murders and in setting the fire," said Riverside Police Officer Ryan Railsback.    

In updated details released Monday morning, a Virginia State Police spokesperson said Edwards was hired and entered the academy on July 6, 2021. Edwards graduated on Jan. 21, 2022, as a trooper and was assigned to Henrico County, within the Richmond Division.

Edwards resigned on Oct. 28, 2022, according to Virginia State Police.

The Washington County, Virginia, Sheriff's Office said Edwards was still employed as a trooper with Virginia State Police when he applied to the sheriff's office.

During his background check of previous employers including the state police, "no employers disclosed any troubles, reprimands, or internal investigations pertaining to Edwards," according to the Washington County Sheriff's Office.

Edwards was hired by the Washington County Sheriff's Office on Nov. 16, 2022, and had recently begun orientation before being assigned to the patrol division.

Riverside Police said detectives determined Edwards had met the teenage girl online as he was pretending to be a different person, also known as "catfishing." Police were investigating whether Edwards had targeted other victims.

"He developed a relationship with her, enough where we believe there might have been an exchange of texts, maybe phone calls. And he was able to get her personal information. He was able to get her address," said Railsback.

Officers believe Edwards traveled from Virginia to Riverside, and reportedly parked in a neighbor's driveway before walking to the teen's residence on Friday, according to Riverside Police. He subsequently murdered the teen's grandfather, grandmother and mother before walking with the teen back to his vehicle and leaving the scene, police said.

"We believe she was in the house," Railsback said of the teen. "We don't know if she was right there when it happened."

The neighbor, who owned the driveway that Edwards parked in, said the teenager seemed distressed since she was barefoot, "crying a little bit," and attempted to mouth words to her. The neighbor, who asked to stay anonymous, added that Edwards wore a black trench coat and face mask. She added that the suspect was carrying a plastic bag and black backpack as he walked back to the car. 

"I opened the garage door," she recounted. "He was stunned. I said 'Hey you can't park here.' He actually apologized, said sorry."

Before he drove off, the neighbor got the suspect's license plate and called police again.

The victims' bodies were found in the residence when firefighters responded to the burning home Friday. Firefighters "discovered the three adult victims laying on the ground in the front entryway," Railsback said. "Their bodies were pulled outside, where it was determined they were victims ... of homicide."

The causes of the deaths of the victims were not immediately released. Arson was determined to be the cause of the house fire.

"This is yet another horrific reminder of the predators existing online who prey on our children," said Riverside Police Chief Larry Gonzalez. "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 process of meeting someone online and portraying to be someone who you're not, in order for your own gratification, whether it's sexual, financial, whatever the case is, is extremely common," said Officer Railsback.

"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," said Chief Gonzalez.    

Investigators returned to the Winek home on Tuesday to continue their investigation and board up the areas damaged in the fire. 

"The family was gonna start having the house boarded up for safety reasons, so our detectives wanted to come out here and do a secondary walkthrough while it was light and not as smoky," Railsback said. 

An animal services worker also removed the remains of the family's dog from the scene. 

Autopsies are scheduled to be performed on Wednesday for two of the family members who were killed. 

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